Sunday, April 19, 2009

State of Play (2009)

If a thriller is like a pot of water, State of Play is centered on the right burner, simmers satisfactorily for a while, and manages to boil a few times, even if it doesn’t have enough material to ever boil over. The film follows a pair of reporters, one a veteran (Russell Crowe), one a newbie and a blogger (Rachel McAdams). As a routine murder (suicide? accident?) story turns into a sex scandal and then a full blow conspiracy piece, the two of them are drawn into an endless web of intrigue. There’s a wide and diverse supporting cast that really shines. There’s Helen Mirren as the tough and biting editor and Robin Wright Penn as the wife of a senator. There’s also a great collection of shifty slimeballs engaging in the skullduggery the leads must sort out. Ben Affleck is quite good – I’ve never thought him to be as bad an actor as some have made him out to be – as a senator who finds himself in the middle of a scandal. Among the respectable and suavely sinister supporting cast, Jeff Daniels, Jason Bateman, and David Harbour are great in the handful of scenes they each are given.

This is a slick, solid film handled well by director Kevin Macdonald. Three screenwriters are credited, reason enough, I suppose, for the watered-down feel of the vision. Matthew Michael Carnahan (Lions for Lambs, The Kingdom), Tony Gilroy (the Bourne films, Michael Clayton, Duplicity), and Billy Ray (Shattered Glass, Breach) are all adept crafters of thrillers but this, an adaptation of a six-hour BBC miniseries (unseen by me, though now I want to give it a look), feels a little rushed and jumbled, almost exactly like three different yet similar takes on the material cobbled together and sanded down, but not quite a smooth integration. Even so, this is a well drawn film with fine performances from fine performers that results in fine drama that’s consistently engaging. This isn’t exactly innovative or distinctive filmmaking but there’s something oddly comforting about seeing an old reliable genre trotted out done well and done right. The script is filled with fun lines and a deep vein of wit, as well as sharp twists of ratcheting tension and wrenching reversals of information that shine new light on sleaze and thicken the plot to a pleasant pulp (and it only once reminded me of the similarly circular Coen comedy Burn After Reading).

And there’s something engagingly current about this film which is a bit of a simultaneous eulogy and appreciation for the art of the printed newspaper (there’s even a bit of homage to that classic journalist film All the President’s Men in the way the final headline types across the screen). The editor complains about the corporation that took control of the paper. A reporter nervously compares his status to that of the new blogging department; after all, they’re cheaper, faster, and have lower standards, or so he says. It’s a rather touching tribute to what Crowe’s character would call “damn fine reporting.” There is a valiant melancholy to the tone of the film that sends the reporters, those brave investigative journalists, off into an uncertain sunset.

This isn’t a great thriller but it’s a good one, the multiplex equivalent of a well-written airport novel. It’s long – but not too long – complex – but not too complex – and satisfyingly immersive with some genuinely unexpected twists and a compelling mystery. I settled back into my seat, sipped my soda, and thoroughly enjoyed having the world melt away for a little over two hours, even though it was only replaced by a hightened and simplified version of it.

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