Saturday 23 May 2009

Movie Review: State of Play (2009)

State of Play cannot quite decide what it wants to be: a glorification of the newspaper industry; a reality-based political murder-and-scandal thriller; or an investigative whodunnit. It ends up being an interesting enough hybrid meal that samples several cuisines without effectively proving to be totally competent in any. Not a surprise, since there are five names on the writing credits of the movie, a perfect recipe for a somewhat bland concoction.

Russell Crowe is Cal McAffrey, an old-style slob of a journalist working for the Washington Globe, which (of course) has just been taken over by a faceless multi-national and profit-driven corporation. McAffrey starts investigating an apparently drug-related double-shooting on the streets of DC, while his young blogger colleague at the Internet edition of the Globe, Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), start poking around the apparent suicide of an aid for the rising young Senator Steven Collins (Ben Affleck).

It turns out that the death of the Senator's aid and the street-level shootings are related (of course), and Collins joins forces with Frye (cue the yawningly expected young / old; traditional / digital; ink / blog tensions) to unravel the evil behind the deaths.

Senator Collins was (of course) having an affair with his aid before she died. He also happens to have been the college roommate of McAffrey. Collins is also just about to open investigative hearings into an evil Blackwater-style mercenary conglomorate. And Collins' wife (Robin Wright Penn) once slept with McAffrey. And the Globe's editor (Helen Mirren) is torn between the need to deliver good journalism and the need to satisfy the new owners' lust for profit.

In other words, there are enough contrived layers of connective tissue between the characters' personal lives and today's real headlines to keep the plot moving, generally in a forward direction.

Let's not ask to look too much at the details of the movie, where the journalists are significantly more competent at crime-solving than the police, and professional assassins are outsmarted by over-weight journalists, and particularly let's not look too closely at the muddled ending, where the plot desperately tries to add one more sharp twist, but can only conjure up a damp tissue.

What keeps State of Play on the safe side of over-cooked is the talent on display. Crowe, Affleck, Mirren, McAdams, and Wright Penn are very watchable, and all do their bit to round out their characters. Even Jason Bateman and Jeff Daniels make an appearance and are effective in relatively small roles.

Kevin MacDonald, best known for The Last King of Scotland, directs with a slightly jittery hand-held style, enough to maintain an edge without being too annoying.

For those who enjoy good acting talent, State of Play is watchable, if not terribly memorable.

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