'State Of Play' Brings The Newsroom Rush; Navigates The Political Thriller Arcs

Kevin MacDonald’s political thriller “State Of Play” comes out this weekend and we have to hand it to the filmmaker (who also directed “The Last King of Scotland”), the picture was a commendable and serviceable thriller that really outpaced our expectations. Part of that, frankly, is because our expectations weren’t high. We were expecting a stock thriller or a wannabe “Parallex View” meets “All The President’s Men,” and there were standard-issue elements to the film,  though they worked in a workman’s-like nature — the picture doesn’t try to be flashy and bares down for good ol’ intrigue-based storytelling. It doesn’t hurt that Tony Gilroy (“The Bourne” series) was one of the writers here.

Based on a acclaimed BBC series, “State of Play” follows a team of investigative reporters (Russell Crowe, Rachel McAdams, Helen Mirren) who work alongside a police detective (Harry Lennix) to try to solve the murder of a congressman’s (Ben Affleck) mistress.

The performances are solid with Russell Crowe and Rachel McAdams’ old school journo vs. new school blogger rapport being rather great (though some journos/bloggers will hopefully not overestimate the film too much just because we’re seeing a dialogue we discuss every day up onscreen; it’s fun to see, ostensibly for the first time, but we should all be aware when writing how much this intrinsically appeals to us). Helen Mirren and Robin Wright Penn are great too, but as you’d probably expect, Ben Affleck is the big weak link here (but since he’s playing a morally bankrupt politician, maybe it works in some respects).

Another element that will sucker in the journalists and critics is that, aside from all the political intrigue, “State Of Play” is very much a love letter to the printed word, the dying newspaper and the fading journalist — without giving up too much of a spoiler, there’s a coda at the end that basically plays out as a fetishistic print porn, essentially showing news going to print.

And we’ll admit that the fast and furious newsroom stuff plus the adrenaline excitement (you can smell a scoop about to surface) is topnotch stuff and super appealing to anyone who’s ever worked a beat. Pound for pound, the hacks’ story outdoes the thriller side with Affleck that’s more familiar and even formulaic at times despite all the twists (and let’s face it, simply too many twists).

Anywho, we didn’t mean to write much here and we wanted to leverage Jeffrey Wells’ review of the film because, for the most part, we agree with much of what he wrote (also he wisely notes that the twists in the film are far more easier to navigate — and far more satisfying — than Gilroy’s “Duplicity,” a spot-on observation).

On bloggers vs. journos section of the film:

In a way, State of Play feels like a kind of farewell valentine to the traditions and disciplines that define serious journalism. McDonald is clearly lamenting their erosion, which is mainly due to competition and influence from the 24/7 digital-blog economy, which tends to favor shoot-from-the-hip analysis over in-depth investigations. And yet the film’s undercurrent is telling us that the economic system that supports traditional reporting is weakening and perhaps losing its will.

He also notes how the film somehow successfully (miraculously?) cuts down a 6 hour mini-series (the aforementioned BBC one) and manages to still be comprehensible and not feel neutered (very true and very good point).

I had been skeptical about the pruning choices in getting the original six episode, 300-minute British miniseries down to two-hours plus. (What is it, 130 minutes?) I have watched the British version which is obviously a fuller and more detailed meal in some respects. (I loved the relative anonymity of the British actors, the standout being Bill Nighy as the paper’s senior editor). The upside is that the honing has demanded a story discipline on the part of McDonald & Co. that kept everything extra disciplined and tightly focused. No time for any funny stuff.

Wells goes a little overboard by endorsing Jason Batemen for award season love (he was good, but not that good), but there’s nothing wrong with enthusiasm for a film that’s far better than it should have been in the always truncating, simplifying hands of Hollywood. If anyone deserves the acting praise here, it’s Crowe and McAdams. He brings the hot-fire a few times and is just extremely believable as the schlubby, wise journo and damn, he’s really charismatic too. Maybe it’s his public persona, but dude doesn’t get enough love these days. He was also quite excellent in “Body of Lies,” as an overweight, slimy goon of a CIA boss but didn’t get any love for that supporting turn.

The film isn’t perfect (you can smell the ending down the hall), but it might be the most satisfying and enjoyable, nuts n’ bolts, no-nonsense Hollywood film we’ve seen this year.