Universal // 2009 // 108 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // September 1st, 2009
Find the truth.
"You're just seeking the truth. You're a truth seeker. You can't help it, that is just who you are. You're such a hypocrite. You're not interested in me. You come in here, it's all about you and you getting your story. I trusted you. You're my friend! You were supposed to be my friend anyway."
Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe, A Beautiful Mind) is a genuine reporter. He has his own biases, but he's always going to examine both sides of the story, he's not going to deliver a story until he knows that he has the facts straight, and he would prefer to be right rather than first. This causes him to have a slightly antagonistic relationship with his editor (Helen Mirren, The Queen), who admires McAffrey's principles but also recognizes that they represent the core of a non-sustainable business model. New corporate ownership has taken over the "Washington Globe" newspaper, and easy sensationalism is the name of the game. The paper doesn't particularly mind if Cal goes after the truth, they just need him to go after it in a manner that sells newspapers. Cal has been able to manage this reasonably well thus far, but starts to get cranky when the paper wants him to rush a very complicated story on a murder that has taken place.
The victim was a girl who worked as an aide to Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck, The Sum of All Fears). McAffrey and Collins have a lengthy history. Once upon a time, they were college roommates and best friends. In recent years, their friendship has come under strain due to a brief affair between Cal and Stephen's wife Anne (Robin Wright Penn, Hurlyburly). Things become even stickier when information is revealed suggesting that Collins and the girl were in a romantic relationship. Evidence begins to pile up, new pieces start to fall into place, and before long Cal begins to suspect foul play. The primary suspect is an organization called PointCorp, a company that is doing work for the U.S. Government in Iraq and Afghanistan (and a very thinly-veiled substitute for Blackwater). Apparently, the girl was one of the leading participants in a case Collins was building against PointCorp. When Cal suggests a corporate conspiracy that is connected to some very powerful people, everyone becomes skeptical, particularly his editor. Even so, Cal and an aspiring young Washington Globe blogger named Della (Rachel McAdams, Red Eye) work together in an attempt to connect the dots.
As a murder mystery, State of Play works reasonably well. It's engaging and entertaining, if somewhat familiar. It's not terribly hard to figure out the solution to the whole thing pretty early on, but the journey there is interesting if just a tad too conspiratorial and neatly-resolved. State of Play works as a mystery, but it shines as a character study and as a statement on the seemingly inevitable demise of the American newspaper. Slowly but surely, print media is dying. Some people (including myself) would argue that a very important brand of journalism is dying out with it. Cal McAffrey is a man who realizes that he may well be the last in a long line of journalists. The future has no real place for a reporter like Cal, but he's just going to keep plugging away until the printing presses stop. There's a definite elegiac quality to the film, particularly accentuated by an end credits montage that lingers lovingly on the process of newspapers going to press. The movie is an affectionate goodbye to good reporters. The majority of Americans no longer wish to pay for their news or have physical newspapers cluttering up their house, and the cost of letting that go is losing men like Cal McAffrey.
I like Cal. As played by Russell Crowe in State of Play, McAffrey is an overweight, unkempt man in desperate need of a shower and shave. He's also a fine journalist, the old-fashioned sort of writer who spends more time making phone calls and following up on leads than he does merely typing out his thoughts. In my field of work, I have encountered quite a few newspaper journalists, and I can see a lot of bits and pieces of them in Cal. The disheveled wardrobe, the weary face, the endless supply of compelling stories, the cynical grin, and the truly important questions being asked in the most casual of ways. Crowe's performance is a very good one. The actor has been a little inconsistent lately, but he's back on his A-game again in this film. His frumpy appearance masks the intelligence and observational skills, and he contrasts nicely to the fresh-faced young blogger played so innocently by Rachel McAdams.
The whole cast is uniformly solid. Helen Mirren steals all of her scenes as the crusty editor, and so does Jason Bateman as a particularly sleazy source. Ben Affleck and Robin Wright Penn turn in subtler performances as the troubled Mr. and Mrs. Collins, while Jeff Daniels and Harry Lennix add their immeasurable professionalism to some important peripheral characters. All of the actors seem to enjoy getting a chance to chew on the meaty screenplay, provided by the impressive writing trio of Tony Gilroy, Billy Ray, and Matthew Michael Carnahan. Director Kevin McDonald (who also helmed The Last King of Scotland) continues to demonstrate that he knows what he is doing, and manages to generate some real tension during a few key dramatic sequences. He knows when to speed up and when to slow down, providing pauses that are as memorable as the outbursts.
The DVD transfer is exceptional, offering noteworthy clarity and depth from start to finish. While State of Play sports a somewhat dour color scheme that prevents it from really popping off the screen, the moody visuals are conveyed very well by this disc. There are quite a few darker scenes in the film and I'm pleased to report that most of them manage to remain perfectly coherent. The audio gets the job done quite well too, as the thump-n-bump Alex Heffes score blends in very smoothly with the active sound design and dialogue. Extras on the disc are disappointingly limited to a handful of deleted scenes and an EPK-style making-of featurette that offers 18 minutes of interviews with the primary members of the cast and crew. Too bad.
State of Play is not quite a great film, but I have a great deal of affection for it. It is a very honorable film, marked by strong performances and a deep appreciation for the doomed field of print journalism. For me, it was a moving experience. While I haven't seen the much-acclaimed BBC miniseries that served as the inspiration for this film (thus making me unable to offer a declaration of how well this film compares), I do know that the American version of this story is well worth a look.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 108 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Deleted Scenes