Sunday, April 19, 2009

State of Play

State of Play comes with a plot so tailor-made for adoration from journalists that cynics everywhere will dismiss it as a cheap ploy to drum up praise. It’s a shame, because by all accounts it’s a solid thriller and a more-than-worthy entry into the tried and true newspaper genre. You know the one: intrepid reporters pursue the story no matter the personal danger, uncovering layers of corruption until justice is served.

Cal McAffrey sort of fits that bill. Played by a scruffy, pudgy Russell Crowe, he hardly fits the profile of the fresh-faced, idealistic journalist. No, he’s been around the block, and just about everyone with a lick of importance in D.C. is on a first-name basis. Those friendships give him an edge when an unknown assailant kills a drug addict and a witness, setting off the events of the film.

Soon after those killings, a senator’s aide falls (or is pushed…) off a subway platform in front of an oncoming train. The senator in question, Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), receives the news and breaks down in the middle of a subcommittee hearing and admits he was having an affair with the young woman. Collins was Cal’s college roommate, and his wife Anne (Robin Wright Penn) had a fling with the reporter. It’s a testament to the film’s structure and writing that everyone in the room didn’t tune out there and then.

As Cal investigates whether the staffer killed herself or was murdered, he attempts to protect his old friend as much as possible. Soon he plunges deep into what he believes is a corporate conspiracy perpetuated by PointCorp, an obvious Blackwater stand-in that’s the subject of Collins’ hearings. Aiding the gruff reporter is Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), the paper’s lead blogger. This of course immediately casts the film as an old guard/new wave examination more than a mere thriller, but thankfully the writers keep things varied: Frye is certainly naïve but she knows how to get facts quickly, while McAffrey teaches her not to blow a big story by rushing individual threads of clues to the internet to claim firsties.

But Cal lets the relationships that give him an edge get in the way, and soon he’s playing cop instead of reporter. He and Frye tie threads together, but soon the roles of muckraker and ethical reporter switch: Cal begins to break the law to get the truth (or at least the truth he wants), while Della protests in vain. And hovering over them always is their editor, Cameron Lynne, played with conviction by Helen Mirren. The only real road bump is the ending, which plays out in the predictable fashion of giving us a twist, then throwing in an even bigger one just because.

Thrillers tend to unfold by rote at this point, but State of Play threw me more than once. Some scenes reminded me strongly of the shadowy terror of All the President’s Men, the film about Woodward and Bernstein’s uncovering of the Watergate scandal: a late-game scene in which Cal runs through a parking garage attempting to hide from the killer behind the initial murders is genuinely pulse-pounding. And many of the reveals drew gasps and “oh’s” from the audience, which is always a good sign.

For a film that many people are calling potentially the last newspaper movie ever – it won’t be I can assure you – it mostly avoids proselytizing about the superiority of paper over blog. Well, there’s some cheap dismissal at the start, and a groanworthy moment at the end where Della tells Cal that their story is too important to be just thrown on the internet, but otherwise the film suggest a healthy co-habitation. I only wish they’d really stuck with that point at the end instead of suddenly making it all about the thriller.

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