Universal // 2009 // 128 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Daniel MacDonald (Retired) // August 24th, 2009
Find The Truth
Politics and journalism go together like Lindsay Lohan and rehab, especially in the movies, and State of Play is the latest picture to meld the two. Does it live up to the examples of its forefathers?
Based on the by-all-accounts terrific BBC miniseries, State of Play details efforts by Washington, D.C., reporter Cal McCaffrey (Russell Crowe, American Gangster) to uncover the connections between two murders, a politician (Ben Affleck, Smokin' Aces) who was Cal's college roommate, and corruption within a massively influential security firm. All the while, Cal is shadowed by his newspaper's newest blogger, Della Frye (Rachel McAdams, The Notebook), leading to a clash between the principals of getting the story first, and getting the story right.
State of Play also features Jeff Daniels (Blood Work), Robin Wright Penn (Hurlyburly), Helen Mirren (The Queen), and Jason Bateman (The Kingdom).
In the behind-the-scenes material, director Kevin MacDonald (The Last King of Scotland) references All the President's Men several times as a touchstone for the type of movie that he was trying to make. While there are certainly parallels between the two films, they're hardly in the same league. State of Play features similarly astounding attention to detail, a complicated plot revolving around a government cover-up, and some superficially similar locations, but it is very much a thriller -- complete with our hero getting shot at and pursued by the villainous bad guy -- and aims to entertain more than to document the ins and outs of print reporting. Not to say State of Play isn't an intelligent, detailed piece of work; the film is well-crafted and wholly satisfying. It's simply not at the same level as the Redford/Hoffman classic, nor do I think it's really aspiring to be. State of Play is high-end popcorn fare.
Despite a rather involved, multifaceted storyline, State of Play is rarely confusing, and is always engaging. This is thanks partially to some well-placed exposition, but mostly the structure of the film is such that, as an audience, we know all will be revealed by the time the credits roll, so we can sit back and enjoy the ride. It's competent and confident storytelling that speaks to the mastery of craft held by the film's writers: State of Play is credited to Matthew Michael Carnahan (Lions for Lambs), Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton), and Billy Ray (Breach), with uncredited work by Peter Morgan (Frost/Nixon). While the business of news reporting is somewhat romanticized, the movie's inner logic is strong.
Russell Crowe gives a typically wholehearted performance, imbuing his character with a distinctive gait, pattern of speech, and so on. Perhaps his best moment comes about midway through the picture, when, while following a lead, Cal finds himself suddenly in mortal danger, and instead of being clever or quick witted, he very nearly falls apart, on the verge of tears. It's an honest and believable emotion: this character, a reporter, is accustomed to a position of power, and does not regularly tempt trained assassins, so he is immediately at a loss and it shows. Also noteworthy is Ben Affleck's performance, although in his case it's more for what he doesn't do than what he does. His Rep. Stephen Collins is almost impenetrably stoic, no matter the circumstance, a cipher for whatever his constituents may want him to be. It's that stoicism that makes his occasional outbursts more effective.
Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (25th Hour) photographed the movie in an artful but non-pretentious way, shooting all of the political maneuvering in high-definition video, and the press' investigation on film. No matter which medium is used, this is a beautiful-looking picture, with a vibrant range of colors in the costume design and picturesque locations throughout Washington, and this Blu-ray release looks stunning. Reportedly sourced directly from the film's digital intermediate (that's the increasingly popular step where a film is scanned into digital form, undergoes color manipulation, then is printed back onto film), State of Play is strikingly sharp, with detail on Crowe's cluttered desk easily discernable, yet it doesn't appear to be the victim of edge enhancement. The image is thick and rich with plenty of detail in the shadow areas, a very small amount of grain, and no compression artifacts. This is one of the best-looking Blu-rays I've seen. Audio is similarly impressive, with all areas of the sound field frequently active. You can hear helicopters circling in nearly every outdoor scene, representing the omnipresent threat of the corporation at the heart of the story, whether we see them or not, using sound to reinforce tension in a subtle way. This is a beefy soundtrack, with plenty of range to the score. Dialogue has a natural timbre, and blends nicely with the rest of the audio with no tears or distortion when voices are raised. It's an excellent technical presentation from Universal.
The special features, unfortunately, are kind of a drag. There are a little over three minutes of deleted scenes, but with no explanation as to why they were cut, and an abrasively high-energy making-of featurette that reveals little more than how much everyone enjoyed working with everyone else. The U-Control picture-in-picture feature is better, giving some detail on production and costume design, interviews with key players, and so on. It's still pretty fluffy and promotional, though, which is a real missed opportunity. There's also a feature showing key Washington, D.C., locations on a map, with tidbits of trivia, which admittedly is pretty cool. I would've liked to see more about the difficulty in adapting a miniseries to a two-hour film, the process of securing the right cast -- Brad Pitt (A River Runs Through It) and Edward Norton (Fight Club) were set to star for some time -- and more about the spectacular sets that were built. What's included seems pretty shallow.
State of Play offers both entertainment and food for thought. It aims to please (so don't expect to be too challenged by the material), and features thoughtful performances by its leads. While the special features set is lacking, the audio-visual quality is astounding, and I recommend this Blu-ray.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (French)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 128 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Deleted Scenes
* Interactive Map