Conspiracy a go-go: State of Play ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 18, 2009)

Hey, Aqualung! Crowe and Affleck in State of Play.

Let’s get this out of the way. I have not seen the original BBC series that Kevin MacDonald’s terrific new thriller, State of Play, was based upon. So if there are any nuances that have been lost in translation, I will profess in advance that I am blissfully unaware of them (so feel free to fight among yourselves in the comment section).

Chock-a-block with paranoid journalists, shadowy assassins, corrupt politicians, and soulless lackeys of the corporate war machine (perhaps “State of the Union” would have been more apt?), the film is a mash-up of complex, old school conspiracy thrillers like The Parallax View and slicker contemporary fare like Enemy of the State. And perhaps most interestingly, it views its timely appraisal of corporatist Washington politics and the usurpation of responsible American journalism through a decidedly European sensibility.

Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) is an investigative reporter for The Washington Globe; he’s one of those grizzled, rumpled newspaper veterans of the “analog” variety. His office cubicle has that “lived-in” look; an explosion of chaotic, paper-strewn clutter that tells us that this is a guy with ink-stained fingers who actually digs deep, takes notes and probably even fact checks before he writes a story (remember that kind of journalism?). Cal, sporting unkempt long hair, a scraggly beard and frequently outfitted in a long wool overcoat, may look like he just strolled off a Jethro Tull album cover, but you sense that once he latches onto a story, he is going to get the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but.

In his years on the Beltway beat, Cal has made a lot of friends in high places, including Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), a golden boy whose star is on the rise. Collins chairs a committee that is investigating some dubiously vetted Defense Department contract awards (are there any other kind?). Currently under the committee’s microscope is a shady Blackwater-type corporation that appears bent on spearheading the complete privatization of America’s Homeland Security operations.

On the eve of the scheduled hearings, the congressman’s young female research assistant (wink wink) dies under mysterious circumstances. Cal is immediately put on the story by his requisite crusty yet benign editor (Helen Mirren). When the panicked congressman reaches out for Cal’s counsel as a friend, the stage is set for a test of the reporter’s objective integrity, especially as the (personal and professional) circumstances become more byzantine.

If it’s starting to sound like you may have been here before, there’s a reason for the plot point déjà vu. Three reasons, actually. The trio of writers who adapted the screenplay is kind of like the Crosby, Stills & Nash of conspiracy thriller scribes. Tony Gilroy wrote Michael Clayton, which was about deadly corporate machinations; Matthew Michael Carnahan did Lions for Lambs, which delved a bit into the grey areas in the relationships between Beltway journalists and politicians; and Billy Ray scripted Breach (based on a true story) which dealt with duplicity and betrayal within the intelligence community.

I think it’s notable that the film also gives a nod to the advent of the blogosphere, and the ripple effect it is has had on traditional mainstream journalism (something my friend Digby has written about, oh, once or twice). When a cub reporter (Rachael McAdams) from the news paper’s online division ingratiates herself into a co-assignment with Cal on the congressional assistant’s murder story, he initially reacts with a fair amount of hostility.

There’s a great scene where Cal calls her with urgent information that she needs to write down; the look on his face as he waits for her while she scrambles to find a pen speaks volumes. Eventually, despite the “oil and water” mix, the pair develops a working dynamic that vacillates between the time-honored student/mentor relationship and Woodward and Bernstein following the money.

Despite the utilization of a few genre clichés (I think there has been a rule ever since All the President’s Men that you are required to have at least one tense scene that takes place after hours in a dark and foreboding underground parking garage) I found the film quite involving, thanks to a great cast and tight direction.

It was fun to watch Mirren and Crowe working together; these are two of the finest actors currently walking the planet (although I wish they would have given Dame Helen a bit more to do aside from pacing and fuming about imminent deadlines). The underrated Robin Wright-Penn (excellent as the congressman’s wife) is also on hand.

I think MacDonald, who also directed The Last King of Scotland, has the potential to be the next Costa-Gavras. His feature films all vibe an undercurrent of docu-realism; perhaps not too surprising, since he made his bones with highly lauded documentaries like Touching the Void and One Day in September. In a spring season of mall cops and 3-D monsters, with Summer Release Purgatory looming, State of Play is one movie that will not require putting your brain on hold.

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