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Judy Thorburn's Movie Reviews

State of Play

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State of Play – A Gripping “Paper” Trail of Scandal and Corruption

As political thrillers go, State of Play is a top notch flick featuring an all star cast, a compelling storyline and brisk pace that will keep audiences on the edge of their seat from the opening action sequence to the very end. More than revolving around a murder mystery with connections to a political and corporate conspiracy there is an undercurrent theme that runs throughout the film about how old fashioned, on the stand newspapers are becoming a dying source for readers and entails their effort to stay alive in this modern age of the Internet.

Adapted from the six hour 2003 British TV mini series of the same name, the setting is moved from the U.K. to the U.S. and stars Oscar winner Russell Crowe (who replaced Brad Pitt after he dropped out) effortlessly slipping into the role of scruffy looking, long haired and pudgy Cal McAffrey, a veteran newspaper reporter for the fictitious Washington Globe.  This is another strong performance from the acclaimed actor and he carries the film.

The film opens with what appears to be a random slaying of a petty thief and an unfortunate passerby witness on his bike which is followed, the next day, by the tragic death of a pretty young redhead (Maria Thayer) who is reported to have committed suicide by throwing herself off a subway platform.  Assigned to cover the first two deaths, Cal soon finds there is more than meets the eye when he discovers a connection between one of the victims and the dead woman who was the lead staff researcher and aide to Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), chairman of a committee investigating PointCorp, a private defense contractor hired by the government.

As it turns out Cal and Congressman Collins have a history, as roommates back in college when Cal also had a love affair with Collin’s emotionally tortured wife, Anne (Robin Wright Penn) who still has a thing for him.

After not being able to keep his emotions in check at a press conference, it is revealed that the noble looking, married politician was involved in an extramarital affair with his aide and it becomes apparent that her death was not an accident or suicide.   With the help of the newspaper’s spunky and ambitious political blogger Della Frey (Rachel McAdams, who admirably holds her own against heavy hitter Crowe) to assist on this case, Cal starts to dig deep into the mystery and begins to uncover information involving corporate and political corruption and profiteering, conflicts of interest, ethics, as well as coming face to face with issues of friendship and loyalty. Thankfully, the story refrains from turning the relationship of the two reporters teamed up to solve the case into anything more than professional,  with Della respectfully learning the ropes and determined to be a hot shot reporter.

In the meantime, Cal’s tough and demanding editor Cameron Lynn (Helen Mirren) is worried about the paper being a sinking ship, and under pressure from new management takeover, is on Cal’s back to deliver a story in time for deadline that will attract readers, satisfy the new owners, and sell.

State of Play is a complex story with several characters, but in no way is it convoluted, disjointed or hard to keep up with as many of this genre tend to be, especially when there are so many pieces of the puzzle that need to be weaved together.  Rather, under slick direction by Kevin McDonald (The Last King of Scotland) from a screenplay by Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gilroy and Billy Ray, the film is smart and coherent, taut, and well focused with some nice twists and turns that you won’t see coming.

Most of the cast is excellent with the exception of Ben Affleck who is miscast in a role that requires an older actor, like say George Clooney, who I think would have been a perfect fit as the handsome politician. Affleck’s acting is adequate, but the obvious age difference between him and Crowe, who are supposed to be college buddies, is a distraction.  Also, he lacks any chemistry with both Crowe and Wright-Penn and therefore his scenes with each of them are not believable.

In smaller supporting roles are Jeff Daniels as a seedy politician, Viola Davis (wink and you might miss her as a medical examiner) and Jason Bateman in an enjoyable, scene stealing performance as a sleazy PR guy who holds some key information to help unwrap the mystery.

If you who like other first rate films of this genre such as All the President’s Men, the more recent Michael Clayton and this year’s corporate conspiracy thriller The International, than add State of Play on your must see list as yet another intellectually stimulating, well executed thrill ride. I have to say that in the end, the only piece of the puzzle left unsolved is the title.

Feedback is welcome.