State of Play | Film | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

State of Play

This over-stuffed thriller just needs to take a breath

click to enlarge Wordsniths Russell Crowe and Rachel McAdams
Wordsniths Russell Crowe and Rachel McAdams

Newspapers may collapse and disappear, but I bet Hollywood will never tire of trotting out thrillers that pit tenacious reporters against various political conspiracies. The latest iteration is State of Play, adapted from the 2003 BBC mini-series of the same name, and directed by Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland). The story has been shifted from London to present-day Washington, D.C., and severely truncated (from six hours to just over two).

Our hero is seasoned investigative reporter Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe). His journey into the shadowy corridors of power begins with the curious shooting of a street kid, who is soon linked to a Capitol Hill staffer who just ended up under a Metro train. That same Hill hottie was also sleeping with her boss, Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), who was McAffrey's roommate in college. Rep. Collins has hitched his rising star to an investigation of Pointcorp, a Blackwater-esque private-security company. As the scandal widens, McAffrey's bottom-line-conscious editor (Helen Mirren) pairs him up with the paper's newbie political blogger (Rachel McAdams) -- and we're off, splashing through murky waters of crime and cover-up.

The BBC production delved deeper into the ethical gray-zone that is the always-shifting interplay among politicians, corporations, PR firms and media, all of whom rely on each other to some degree. Its narrative mined the thin lines between friend and source, principle and profit, loyalty and self-interest.

This revised version puts plot points before any broader discussion of how media is tangled up in potentially compromising scenarios, many driven by the quest for profit. Like all panicked dailies, McAffrey's paper, recently absorbed into a media conglomerate, is transitioning to both the Web and a glossier style, hoping for bigger bucks.

State of Play v. 2.0 opens with a timely business quandary that could have led to some examination of journalism's still-developing ethics and protocols in a 24-7 world: How can print media, with its dusty crown jewels of slow-moving investigative reporters, compete where fast and first trumps rigorously sourced?

But these brief flirtations -- which are, admittedly, more compelling to those of us in these trenches -- are quickly abandoned (though not before a few real-life blogs and cable-TV pontificators get their cameos). The detail-packed plot can really only support lining up all its scattered ducks for the big everybody-is-interconnected gotcha.

Thus State of Play is long, but pretty lean. It's like watching a comic book, where every panel boasts breathless action with little space in between for reflection, context, motivation or character development.

Not that the seasoned viewer will need such "development" -- all the recognizable archetypes have been bussed over from Thrillers-R-Us. In addition to the perpetually rumpled reporter, there is queen-bitch editor, cranky cops, psycho killer, smarmy politician, long-suffering wife/girlfriend, nerd squad to help out star reporter and -- this one is even called out verbatim in the film -- the "doe-eyed cub reporter."

So even though State has some worthy actors on its slate (but no, not you, Ben Affleck), nobody gets much to do other than dispensing enough queries and answers to keep the twisty plot corkscrewing forward. Everything feels very rote; there's no sense that the characters really have anything at stake, other than meeting a deadline. A subplot involving the congressman's estranged wife (Robin Penn Wright), who is also McAffrey's one-time lover, is bloodless, summoning virtually no emotions from its players.

It all gets pretty frantic in the film's second half, which is essentially the longest-ever "hold the front page" as McAffrey undertakes several last-minute news-breaking tasks all over town. Bam! Bam! Bam! Sharp eyes will note that most of McAffrey's success relies on seemingly every door in the greater Washington, D.C. area being left unlocked or unguarded, whether it's a tony apartment complex, a motel room or the Cannon House Office Building late at night.

The story's conclusion is pretty unsatisfying, with everything lined up just so to reach it. I'm not sure that a second viewing would prove that all the random pieces -- some of which make little real-world sense -- do assemble correctly.

All that said, I'm a fan of political thrillers, even when they're in the so-so zone, like this one. They're tops on my guilty-pleasure list: Who doesn't like to see the little guy unravel all the threads that keep corrupt politicians and big, evil corporations intact, if only in fantasy? I wish this one were better, but it ended up being just another reasonably entertaining, don't-think-too-hard time-killer.

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