State Of Play

The Outsider: Russell Crowe and The Three Ps: Press, Politics, and Policing Both
By Omar P.L. Moore/     SHARE
Friday, April 17, 2009

Russell Crowe as Cal McAffrey and Ben Affleck as U.S. Congressman Stephen Collins in "State Of Play", directed by Kevin Macdonald. 
(Photo: Universal Pictures)

In "State Of Play", directed by Kevin Macdonald, Russell Crowe indulges the opposite number to his real-life Jeffrey Wigand portrayal in "The Insider", going Lowell Bergman as a member of the hallowed and hated fourth estate, a sly reporter for the fictional newspaper The Washington Globe.  Uncovering and digging deeper than he's supposed to, Cal McAffrey (Mr. Crowe) reveals a huge scandal embroiling a U.S. congressman from Pennsylvania named Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck).  Sex, corruption and corporate crises involving a murdered research aide, private contract companies and government secrecy at its highest levels make for the juiciest headlines and gossip in the U.S. capital town.

Mr. Macdonald ("The Last King Of Scotland") does a decent job at putting all the players of this broad, sprawling canvas on the chessboard but fails to move them strategically to interesting enough places that would engage an audience beyond what is a functional thriller speckled with red herrings and exasperation.  The screenplay is written by "Duplicity" and "Michael Clayton" writer-director Tony Gilroy and writers Michael Matthew Carnahan ("Lions For Lambs") and Billy Ray (director of "Breach").  The script is good at capturing newsroom politics and skirmishes, with "Prime Suspect" veteran Helen Mirren priceless as Cameron Lynne, the Globe's political desk editor-in-chief, letting fly torrents of curse words in cockney that is a delight to the ear.  There are many films capturing the stress and tension fueled by pressure-packed deadlines for the now-floundering American newspaper industry such as "The Paper", with other movies chronicling media ethics ("Shattered Glass") and the intersection of politics and press ("All The President's Men") and "State Of Play" has its place somewhere in the middle of these and many others of their ilk as an investigative media movie drama.  

Yet "State Of Play", based on Paul Abbott's acclaimed 2003 BBC television miniseries, is static cling beyond its fictional newspaper world as it amps up tension and drama with heightened score music and style-cliched "deep throat" dark , shadowy profile shots of ne'er-do-wells on the Washington D.C. power stage, isn't quite so potent in its political atmospherics even though the dilemmas and situations the film presents are ripped from the Gary Condit-Chandra Levy headlines of late summer 2001.  Mr. Affleck's square-jawed, angular politician is seemingly above the fray until he gets in too deep as part of a too-hot-too-handle investigation.  Adding convenient spice to the film, McAffrey happens to be Collins' roommate from college, thus deepening the stakes of the veteran journalist's involvement.  The film has a few effective moments drawing us in, but these dissipate rapidly.

Several notable supporting players in Mr. Macdonald's film are underutilized but nevertheless interesting to watch including Robin Wright Penn as Anne, Collins' estranged wife, and Jeff Daniels as a top politician on Capitol Hill.  It is almost easy to forget Rachel McAdams as Della Frye, a neophyte journalist whose political blog reputedly spills all the beans and all the news that isn't fit to print.  The metaphorical innocent of this cynical bunch, Ms. McAdams' Frye is the film's conscience as well as its laughing stock, representative of the mild (if any) policing of the ethical boundaries of journalism and being out in front of a news story versus hindering a police investigation headed by the charismatic and snappy Harry Lennix Jr.  There's also a cameo by Barry Shabaka Henley ("Collateral", "Miami Vice") as the Globe's newsroom chief, a far more laid-back character than Jackie Cooper's Daily Planet editor Perry White in "Superman: The Movie" or J.K. Simmons' gruff, brusque Jonah Jameson in the "Spider-Man" films. 

While loose ends and other extraneous material exist making its two-hour-plus running time feel longer, "State Of Play", which opened today in the U.S. and Canada, works best when it contrasts the methods of ethics and procedure within the ranks of the police, the press and politicians.  We find that there's very little difference between the three, with the police being late on the scene, in distant last place behind the press, the politicians, YouTube and cell phones, if D.C.'s finest actually show up at all.

With: Viola Davis, plus a notable cameo from an actor you'll instantly recognize.

"State Of Play" is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association Of America for some violence, language including sexual references, and brief drug content.  The film's duration is two hours and seven minutes.


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