Monday, April 20, 2009

An Intriguing State Of Play

Russell Crowe leads an all-star cast in a blistering thriller about a rising congressman and an investigative journalist embroiled in an case of seemingly unrelated, brutal murders. Crowe plays D.C. reporter Cal McCaffrey, whose street smarts lead him to untangle a mystery of murder and collusion among some of the nation’s most promising political and corporate figures in State of Play, from acclaimed director Kevin Macdonald. Handsome, unflappable U.S. Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck) is the future of his political party: an honorable appointee who serves as the chairman of a committee overseeing defense spending. All eyes are upon the rising star to be his party’s contender for the upcoming presidential race. Until his research assistant/mistress is brutally murdered and buried secrets come tumbling out.

Paul Abbott's much-admired BBC drama serial about a murderous conspiracy at the heart of the British establishment has been condensed and Americanised into a decent, workmanlike, old-fashioned political thriller, directed by Kevin Macdonald. The original had seemed so edgy and contemporary - State of Play was state of the art - but the movie version, while perfectly watchable, could have been made any time in the last 30 years, despite references to blogs. The TV show had young John Simm as Cal, a political journalist who was once campaign manager for a politician now intensely embarrassed by the apparent suicide of a beautiful young female researcher. The film transmutes this character into Russell Crowe, as an older and more traditionally rumpled investigative reporter, less obviously encumbered by personal conflicts of interest, but encumbered nevertheless. He is that enviable kind of journalist who never seems to have much to do in the way of work, and his grizzled integrity and heart-of-gold cynicism transmits itself in the form of a grotty car, dingy flat and a sprinkle of Irish-lite mannerisms. Ben Affleck plays Stephen Collins, the troubled congressman her paper is writing about, a man who is taking on the sinister, unaccountable corporate powers with their snouts in the defence-security trough, powers who may be behind the death of the young employee with whom Collins was having a dalliance. Rachel McAdams plays Della, the feisty young blogger with whom Mirren forces grumpy old Cal, that exasperated warrior from the Journalism 1.0 old school, to team up. Having "met cute" in the normal way, Cal and Della break the biggest scoop of their careers and despite Della's modernity, she doesn't seem to mind handling the softer "female" side of the story. Crowe ticks every box for the Hollywood journalist. In the real world, we tend to have the unexciting appendages of family, children, elderly parents, etc, to whose unsexy needs we must attend on getting home from work in the evening. Crowe, of course, is a supercool loner in a sparsely masculine apartment, in which he can take anonymous calls in the dead of night. In the real world, we tend to be obliged to show up on time for work, and then, in fact, do some work. Crowe, in that fantastic big-screen way I have never been able to manage, shows up in the office hours after everyone else and then does a kind of running lap of honour exchanging quips and in-jokes with various other ranks to show how unstarry and down-to-earth he is, before cracking on with the day's business: exchanging barbed badinage with the editor. His stories apparently do not need to be sub-edited or run past the legal department. You may recognize the scenario from a dozen other movies as Crowe sets about finding out that a congressman’s researcher didn’t commit suicide but was murdered. The politician seems to be doing a good job rooting out big-business corruption — in this case the privatisation of homeland security — but may, in fact, be deeply compromised in other ways himself and has been having an affair with the researcher. He is also our reporter’s best friend from college days; Cal, however, once had a fling with his wife (Robin Wright Penn). So we’re in the midst of an awkward political and emotional dogfight, and it looks as if the congressman’s career is a certain goner. Lie low and keep quiet, says poobah Jeff Daniels. But we know by that time that illicit sex is only half the story. How it plays out makes, in the hands of an excellent director such as Macdonald, a taut and clever thriller — even if it’s not as modern as it likes to believe. Writers Tony Gilroy, Matthew Carnahan and Billy Ray have provided a convincing screenplay and, though the action doesn’t serve up the kinetic feast of the Bourne franchise, it works well most of the time. The old-fashioned investigative hack, so wedded to his now slightly antediluvian methods he still uses a typewriter, eventually teams up with Della, his cyber-snoop Girl Friday, to solve the case. You feel the film’s heart is located somewhere in the Seventies, even as it provides enough action to placate the present. That’s no real disadvantage when the performances are excellent, right down to Jason Bateman’s sleazy PR man. Crowe and McAdams dovetail well together without — thank goodness — resorting to what would once have been an obligatory romance. Originally cast as Cal, Brad Pitt pulled out over perceived flaws in the screenplay. But Crowe, taking it at short notice, inhabits the role with an experienced weariness that perfectly suits the piece. You can almost smell the whisky on his breath — “Irish wine”, he calls it. Mirren, as a scolding, hard-boiled editor who knows she has to deliver and pushes her staff into action until her corporate bosses say no to too much scandal, is equally convincing. “The real story,” she barks, “is the sinking of this bloody newspaper.” The ending provides a speech about the continuing necessity of good, old-fashioned journalism that underlines the sentiment. We may have seen this all before but generally not as convincingly done. Alan Pakula, director of The Parallax View and All the President’s Men, would no doubt approve. It doesn’t stray too far from his better movies which suggested that campaigning journalism can sometimes solve problems beyond the daring of politicians. The director, Kevin McDonald, clearly has an affinity with the material. He’s meticulous about tying up loose ends and his pacing is dead on; deliberate and measured enough for each twist to register with the audience but never losing the sense of controlled urgency of the breaking scoop. This is not an action movie — its thrills are more of the cerebral variety — but an opening scene that captures a ruthlessly efficient double murder is a heart-stopping entrance into Washington’s underworld. Later there’s a tremendously tense sequence where Cal, too close to a very dangerous man, is stalked by a would-be killer in an underground car park. But most rewarding is the battle of wits between a journalist compromised by a friendship and a politician who might be prepared to use that friendship for his own purposes. This is exhilarating, compulsive storytelling and looks likely to be one of the year’s cinematic highlights. This gets a 3 on my "Go See" scale.

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