Saturday, April 18, 2009
Here are the players in the mix of "State of Play" (opened April 17 throughout San Diego): a hotshot congressman in the midst of a scandal; his reporter friend who wants to help but also smells a story; a doe-eyed cub reporter (read blogger) who senses a big break; and a British female editor-in-chief who employs colorful language as she juggles new owners and a changing media landscape. Add into the mix the backdrop of Washington D.C. and you have the potential for a tense political thriller. The film is based on an acclaimed 2003 British mini-series of the same name. The British show focused on the dangerous mix of politics, journalism, and big business in London. The new Hollywood film ably shifts the setting to Washington D.C. where private and public affairs are equal fodder for a hungry media.
Both the film and the series involve the seemingly unrelated deaths of a drug dealer and a pretty young aide to a rising politician. But the series had the murders lead to a big oil company trying to avoid the repercussions of some government environmental policies, while the film involves a private security company (meant to invoke Haliburton and Blackwater) that's making a bid for a multi-million dollar contract to run Homeland Security.
Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) is the seasoned reporter following the drug death. Della Frye (Rachel McAdams) is the political blogger pursuing the potential scandal behind the girl's death and Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck). They are presented to us in a predictably adversarial relationship with editor Cameron Lynne (Helen Mirren) refereeing their bouts. Adding to the usual tension between the vet and the newbie is the fact that McAffrey writes for the paper and Frye is a blogger. As Lynne puts it, Frye is "cheap, hungry and produces every hour." McAffrey by implication is expensive, fat and slow to deliver. The changes currently afflicting newspapers could have given a fresh edge to this political thriller if writers Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gilroy, and Billy Ray had devoted real attention to its potential rather than using it as a mere gimmick. These writers should have been able to incorporate the new media landscape into the script more effectively. They are a talented bunch, with Gilroy having both written and directed the Oscar-nominated corporate thriller "Michael Clayton;" Ray writing and directing the able spy thriller "Breach" as well as the real story of a journalist's fall from grace "Shattered Glass;" and Carnahan having dealt with action and politics in his scripts for "The Kingdom" and "Lions for Lambs." These are writers who should know how to craft a thriller.
But maybe a trio of strong writers is a bad mix since they have to combine their possibly diverse interests for a single script. "State of Play" has intriguing elements but none of them fully play out. One character assesses that the real story the reporters should be covering is the "fundamental restructuring of homeland security." The film has the opportunity to explore the implications of that played off of the fundamental restructuring of a newspaper in a 21st century landscape that includes the instant news of the Internet. But the film fails to give satisfactory play to either the back room politicking involved in the apparent privatization of homeland security or to the turmoil in today's media. We get just enough to whet our appetite and to expect more, but not enough to satisfy. The series was apparently like a procedural thriller played out in the newsroom (akin to "All the Presidnet's Men"), and the film doesn't have the attention to detail as either a straight political thriller or a newspaper drama.
Kevin MacDonald scored well with "The Last King of Scotland," which mixed fact with fiction, to win an Oscar for Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin. "State of Play" could be seen as drawing on real stories as the foundation for its fictional plot but MacDonald doesn't spin the elements as effective as he did in his earlier film. There's more Hollywood gloss that puts distance between what's on the screen and what's in the real world. The film doesn't have quite the edge it could. MacDonald dutifully paces the film to build tension at a predictable speed, all the while throwing in expected twists and turns. All the elements are in place for a taut political thriller, but MacDonald and company don't ratchet up the tension for maximum effect. I kept thinking back to Michael Mann's "The Insider" (also with Crowe), which built far more tension with its tale of a whistle blower in the tobacco industry. Mann packs his film with detail so that we sense the danger, feeling the tension and fear of the characters as they try to navigate through personal emotions, politics, and the consequences of their actions. MacDonald delivers his thriller as more of a paint by numbers -- we get exactly what we expect from a political thriller but without much inspired creativity.
The cast reveals an equal sense of predictability. Everyone is well suited to his or her role but no one excels. Crowe just played this kind of scruffy, determined character in "American Gangster;" Mirren channels Jason Robards in "All the President's Men;" and McAdams delivers a predictable blend of perky, smart, and naïve.
"State of Play" (rated PG-13 for some violence, language including sexual references, and brief drug content) has all the right elements for an effective political thriller. But as with anything, it's more about the execution. MacDonald and his team of writers don't bring all their elements together to maximize the effect of the whole. Towards the end of the film, blogger Frye says that she would rather see the story go to print in the paper first than break in her blog. She notes, "It's a big story, people should have news print on their hands." That statement reflects the way the film introduces something potentially new but then cops out. The Internet does change the way a news story can break, and that should have affected how this thriller played out. But it doesn't. In the end, there's a lot about holding the presses for the story and delaying the paper, but no talk of using the immediacy of the Internet as a legitimate means of breaking the story in a timely manner. There's no sense for how the Internet is changing the newsroom. Instead the film implies that the young woman came over to the older male's point of view, but the older male learns nothing from her along the way. "State of Play" is the same -- it relies on an old formula rather than reveal it's picked up anything new. It's simply routine, and considering all the talent involved, that's disappointing.
Companion viewing: "Michael Clayton," "Breach," "Shattered Glass," "The Insider," "All the President's Men," "Absence of Malice"