State of Play

After several disappointing films, stars Russell Crowe and Ben Affleck are back on terra firma in the political-newsroom thriller “State of Play,” directed by Kevin Macdonald, a movie that recalls the character-driven features of the 1970s (specifically Alan Pakula's movies), which both the director and the writers obviously admire and wish to emulate, even if they do not quite succeed.


We all know that print and investigative journalism are largely over due to the increasing importance of the Internet and electronic media.  As a result, watching this picture sends waves of warm nostalgia for older times, when newspapers truly mattered and hard-hitting and committed reporters were heroic public figures.  As flawed as the picture is, it is made for intelligent and mature viewers, not teenagers.


“State of Play” is a follow-up for the director Macdonald, whose rising reputation is based on his documentary “One Day in September” and the semi-docu feature “The Last King of Scotland,” for which Forest Whitaker won the Best Actor Oscar.  That said, new movie is not nearly as exciting as “Last King of Scotland,” and for a thriller leaves much to be desired.


Based on the 2003 BBC TV series created by Paul Abbott and directed by David Yates (who helmed one of the “Harry Potter” pictures), the screenplay is credited to three different writers, each with different sensibility and skills, which presents some narrative problems.  They are: Matthew Michael Carnahan (“The Kingdom,” “Lions For Lambs”), Tony Gilroy (“Duplicity,” “Michael Clayton”) and Billy Ray (“Breach,” “Flightplan”).  Having seen all of their films before, I could almost tell which angle of the story was developed by which writer.  However, regardless of the relative achievements of their individual works (Gilroy and Ray are also directors; Carnahan is not), what they do share in common is concern for well grounded political films about serious issues with fully fleshed characters.


At its essence, “State of Play” posits two old friends who find themselves engaged in a major but quite typical conflict between the respective professions they represent, an ambitious politico seeking to retain his position of power and an investigative journo seeking “the truth,” or more specifically, the disclosure of corruption and abuse that's associated with power.  Interweaving into the already complicated situation is a personal story of friendship, with a woman in between (Robin Wright Penn) of two opponents who like and need each other and find themselves in compromised positions, professionally, morally, and personally, with not only their camaraderie but also their professional careers at stake.


The scenario's subtext dwells on various facets of assassination, or the anxieties that assassination create, be it an assassination of a real life, as the story begins with the discovery of a young woman's body, or an assassination of characters, a theme that evolves as the story continues.

When the saga starts, it feels like just another familiar thriller about a rising congressman and an investigative journalist embroiled in a case of multiple but seemingly unrelated homicides.  First, a young man is shot down on the street, then a young woman, Sonia Baker (Maria Thayer) is found dead under a subway train. The task of the ensuing narrative is to decipher the complex ways in which these murders are interrelated.  

Crowe plays Cal McAffrey, a vet D.C. reporter whose unyielding determination leads him to untangle a mystery of murder and collusion among some of the country’s most promising political and corporate figures.  McAffrey is assigned a novice partner, a blogger named Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), in their effort to uncover the killer’s (or killers') identity.  


When first seen and heard, U.S. Congressman Stephen Collins comes across as an ambitious, eloquent, and unflappable politico who represents the bright future of his party.  He seems to be an honorable appointee who serves as the chair of a committee overseeing defence spending.  High Expectations are pinned to this rising star to become a national figure—until his beautiful young staff assistant dies suddenly and tragically.


On one level, “State of Play” is a reasonably well-grounded and suspenseful murder mystery: Was it homicide or suicide? How well did Congressman Collins know Sonia Baker? How was she recruited for her job?   Did she posses access to indispensable knowledge? Did Collins have an affair with Sonia?


Reflecting the different sensibilities and specialized skills of each of the trio of scribes, the narrative may be too symmetrical and balanced for its own good in its organizational structure of the text, in its depiction of gender roles, in its effort to satisfy generic dictates of both the Hollywood political thriller and the Investigative type of newspaper picture, which dates back to Warner films of the Depression era, reaching another height in the 1970s with films like Alan Pakula's “The Parallax View” and “All the President's Men.”

Though the picture is basically a two-handler yarn, the first part skews toward McAffrey's life and work, whereas the second toward Collins and his story, before their characters meet and take center stage in a more balanced and egalitarian way in the last reel.


Crowe is assigned with the bigger and more complex part, as McAffrey is torn between old friendship with Collins, attraction to Collins' wife Anne (see below), and working for the tough, harsh editor Cameron Lynne (Helen Mirren, in her first impressive turn after winning the Oscar for The Queen) of the Washington Globe, who has assigned him to investigate the story and put pressure on him to publish the story as soon as possible, beating out their competitors in a nasty, cutthroat milieu.   The best lines are delivered by Mirren, as she expresses one of the film's mottos: “Good reporters don’t have friends, only sources.”


Predictably, McAffrey steps into a cover-up of a conspiracy that threatens to shake the nation’s power structures with kits basic checks and balances.  In this respect, “State of Play” truly resembles a picture of the 1970s.

As we viewers already know from countless actual cases (movies and TV series), and as McAffrey will find out for himself, in a capitalistic country such as the U.S., and in a small town like Washington D.C., when mega financial transactions and billions are at stake, they take precedence over issues of ethic, morality and integrity. 


The third woman, Stephen Collins’ loyal wife Anne (Robin Wright Penn), is the woman caught in between.  She is not exactly a femme fatale type (as in film noir), but one who's still attracted to (and perhaps still in love with) her former old flame McAffrey.  The personal scenes between McAffrey and Anne are the weakest in the picture, because we always feel that they are sort of retardation devices to the main storyline, the murder investigation and the conspiracy and paranoia that they involve.


Tow other characters (and actors) need to be mentioned: Dominic Foy (Jason Bateman), a manipulative public relations executive, George Fergus (a brilliant Jeff Daniels) as a powerful senator, who's mostly concerned with the on the line reputation of his party.

Artistically, “State of Play” is a step down for helmer Macdonald, who stumbles with giving the tale the right tempo in order for it to qualify as a fast-talking and exciting picture.  Pacing is largely uneven: Scenes often drag on without much energy or dramatic punctuation before they switch to the newsroom, where they become overheated, bordering the hysteria associated with cutthroat competition and meeting deadlines.


Crow gives a dominant, well-calculated performance that contrasts nicely with Affleck's understated turn.  Ditto for the women: Rachel McAdams, arguably stuck with the least developed part, and Robin Wright Penn walk through their roles quietly while Mirren deliberately renders an overheated (borderline campy) performance, which may parody Faye Dunaway's news editor in Sidney Lumet's 1976 farce, “Network.”






Cal McAffrey Russell Crowe
Stephen Collins Ben Affleck
Della Frye Rachel McAdams
Cameron Lynne Helen Mirren
Anne Collins Robin Wright Penn
Dominic Foy Jason Bateman
Rep. George Fergus Jeff Daniels





A Universal release of a Universal Pictures (U.S.) and Working Title Films (U.K.) presentation, in association with StudioCanal and Relativity Media, of an Andell Entertainment/Bevan-Fellner (U.S.) production.
Produced by Andrew Hauptman, Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner.
Executive producers, Paul Abbott, Liza Chasin, Debra Hayward, E. Bennett Walsh.
Co-producer, Eric Hayes.
Directed by Kevin Macdonald.
Screenplay, Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gilroy, Billy Ray, based on the BBC television series created by Paul Abbott.
Camera, Rodrigo Prieto.
Editor, Justine Wright.
Music, Alex Heffes; music supervisor, Nick Angel.
Production designer, Mark Friedberg.
Art director, Richard L. Johnson.
Set designers, Noelle King, William Law III, Jeff Ozimek.
Set decorator, Cheryl Carasik.
Costume designer, Jacqueline West.
Sound, Mark Ulano; supervising sound editor, Skip Lievsay; sound designer, Jay Wilkinson; re-recording mixers, Lievsay, Tim LeBlanc.
Visual effects supervisor, Robert C. Mercier; visual effects and animation, Rhythm & Hues Studios.
Stunt coordinator, Doug Coleman,
Associate producer, Kwame L. Parker.
Second unit director, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon.
Second unit camera, Masanobu Takayanagi.
Additional camera, Dante Spinotti; casting, Avy Kaufman.

MPAA Rating: PG-13.
Running time: 128 Minutes