movie film review | chris tookey

State of Play

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  State of Play Review
Tookey's Rating
10 /10
Average Rating
6.21 /10
Russell Crowe , Ben Affleck , Rachel Mcadams
Full Cast >

Directed by: Kevin Macdonald
Written by: Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gilroy, Billy Ray

Released: 2009
Origin: US
Colour: C
Length: 127

The cleverest political thriller in decades.
Reviewed by Chris Tookey

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This first-rate, fast-moving, super-topical thriller will keep you gripped for every one of its 127 minutes. It has a tremendous twist that wrong-foots the audience without cheating. And it has perceptive things to say about press, politics and people.

Six years ago, I missed the acclaimed BBC series on which it is based, but it can’t have been faster moving, better acted, or directed with greater panache.

State of Play captures the scruffy excitement of investigative journalism better than any movie since All The President’s Men (1976). The scarcely noticeable juxtaposition of film (for the journalistic sequences) and digital (for the politics) makes a subtle, subliminal impression of a collision between two worlds that are antagonistic yet mutually parasitic.

Although director Kevin Macdonald’s Touching The Void and The Last King of Scotland were rightly admired, this is his most imaginative and successful effort yet.

Russell Crowe (pictured), back on top form, plays that unthinkable concept, a podgy, slobbish, middle-aged journalist. An experienced reporter who’s too slow (in other words, too thorough) to suit his struggling newspaper, the Washington Globe, he’s doggedly following up the double shooting of a petty thief and a pizza delivery man.

He’s irritated when a young, scandal-mongering blogger in the Globe’s annoyingly popular online department (Rachel MacAdams) pumps him for information on his old friend, Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck). Collins may have been cheating on his elegant wife (Robin Wright Penn) with a pretty female employee (Maria Thayer) who has just fallen, thrown herself or been pushed under a train.

Crowe becomes personally involved when his old chum turns up at his house, needing a bed, as his own home is besieged by reporters.

Then Crowe discovers an unexpected, intriguing link between the shootings and the sex scandal. His reward is to find himself teamed up with the aforementioned ambitious blogger, under the beady eye of a believably foul-mouthed editor (Helen Mirren) who wants results fast, and isn’t bothered about whose feelings, or career, it hurts.

The film is superbly performed by everyone - even Affleck, who shakes himself out of his usual self-regarding handsomeness and manages to look harassed, exhausted, yet angrily defiant. His stint directing the excellent actors in Gone Baby Gone has transformed him. He’s perfectly cast, and this is the performance of his life.

Solid support is supplied by Viola Davis (the mother from Doubt) as a reluctantly helpful coroner and the always excellent Jeff Daniels as an oily machine politician. Jason Bateman (the husband from Juno) threatens to steal the last third of the movie as a sleazy PR man with a secret.

You may think you can guess where the movie’s heading, as Affleck’s idealistic congressman takes on a shifty security corporation with a cavalier attitude towards torture and human rights; but nothing in this movie is straightforward.

Nor is Crowe’s anti-hero, who seems like an idealistic investigative reporter, until you pause to consider just how ethical he really is, how compromised he is by his own illicit relationships, and his need to hold down a job at a time when no one is that bothered about knowing the truth. One strand of the plot is his hesitant journey towards redemption as a principled and truth-telling journalist.

There’s a very topical subplot about the economic crisis in newspapers, which gives special urgency to Mirren’s desire for the facts before they have been checked. The implication is that the recession, cross-media ownership and the Internet have all corrupted editorial judgments.

It no longer matters if you’re wrong or right, as long as you are first with the story. And if the story turns out to be planted misinformation aimed at destroying a career or obstructing democracy and the rule of law, hey… that’s showbiz, or rather modern journalism.

The influence of the Internet on media ethics is such fertile ground that it’s amazing this film is the first to explore its potential. And in the wake of recent revelations about our own government’s suicidal obsession with spin and irresponsible blogging, the theme could hardly be more apposite.

There are bound to be grumbles that State of Play doesn’t have the depth or complexity of the 342-minute BBC series, which was set in London, and I’m not the person to judge between them.

But the compression to feature length generates excitement, as does the raising of stakes by setting it at the political heart of the world’s most powerful nation. A new theme - the changing nature of homeland security in the US - is skilfully exploited. And the fine performances imply a good deal more about the relationships than is spelt out in the script, which overcomes the odd, plonky line of dialogue, and one or two cliched settings.

That’s mainly because Paul Abbott’s original story has been restructured and paced with wonderful ingenuity by Matthew Michael Carnahan (The Kingdom), Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton) and Billy Ray (Shattered Glass).

I admired the realistic way State of Play shows how corruption works on a corporate, political and personal level. It’s especially refreshing to see a movie which doesn’t pretend that the Left has a monopoly of virtue.

Even if you don’t normally bother with movies, cheer yourself up by seeing this. There hasn’t been a more engrossing or intelligent political thriller in the last three decades.

Note: The film was originally to have starred Brad Pitt as the reporter and Edward Norton as the politician, but both dropped out when the 2007 writers’ strike delayed production. I think the picture benefits from the recasting. Pitt would have been too glamorous, and Norton lacks the deceptive blandness that Affleck brings to the role.

Later note: I have now watched the original BBC series, which is considerably different from the film and, in its way, extremely good. It is, however, much more slowly paced and carries less weight, both as an analysis of political corruption and as a study of newspaper practices. The big plus is a cracking performance by Bill Nighy.

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