'State of Play' is a Pedantic Thriller Caught in its Own Obvious Clockwork

Universal Pictures

City Pulse | April 13, 2009
Based on a politically-charged BBC mini-series, director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) moves the action from the House of Parliament to Washington D.C. where the suspicious death of a congressman's co-worker mistress underlines the desperate state of newspaper journalism in America. Russell Crowe -- looking considerably older these days -- plays Cal McAffrey, a veteran Washington Post-styled reporter with close ties to Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck) and Collins' romantically fickle wife Anne (Robin Wright Penn). Cal uncovers a corporate espionage plan to privatize Homeland Security that seems related to the death of Collins' mistress. Cal gets tossed in with neophyte newspaper blogger Della Frye (Rachel McAdams) to cover the story whose scandalous elements threaten to eclipse greater crimes at hand. Laced with telegraphed character development, ghost-in-the-machine plot points, and preachy commentary, State of Play is a pedantic thriller caught in its own obvious clockwork. Nothing is organic and no situation believable in a movie that plays like a collection of isolated sub plots.

Ed Norton and Brad Pitt were originally slated to work together for the first time since Fight Club in State of Play, but begged off of the project. It's not much of a leap to guess that the reason for their early departure lay in the vacillating script.

A fast-action foot chase scene between a bag-snatcher and a professional assassin ends in the death of the petty criminal and a pizza delivery boy with bad timing. Cut to Congressman Collins (ably played by Ben Affleck) announcing the subway suicide (or was it murder?) of his research assistant Sonja Baker (Maria Thayer), while speaking at a televised congressional hearing for a Halliburton-styled military contract corporation called Pointcorp. Collins lets his emotions show, and the press rushes to characterize his romantic relationship with Ms. Baker. Is it all just a carefully planned smear campaign by the multi-billion dollar Pointcorp to dislodge their chief political rival? Collins thinks so, and goes to the apartment of his old college buddy, newspaper reporter McAffrey, to lay low while the press levels his political career.

It's in the context of McAffrey's loyalty, journalistic or otherwise, to his friend Stephen Collins that the story is burdened with questions about who knew what/when about McAffrey having slept with Collins' wife in college, and her desire to leave her husband for him, and the lengths that the reporter will go to in proving his friend's case.

We get a unilateral detente between the world of employed bloggers and experienced reporters thanks to the olive branch that McAffrey extends to his brash young colleague when he patiently explains his methods and need for her to act more like a responsible journalist. The scene is more than a little patronizing and exposes the screenwriters' obligation to dumb down the script for younger viewers. If only they had felt a similar compulsion to vet secondary characters that conveniently pop into the story like literal ghosts-in-the-screenwriting-machine. When the junkie girlfriend of the murdered bag-snatcher appears at the hospital where McAffrey visits the comatose pizza man, the movie jumps a track of logic that never gets reclaimed.

A theme ostensibly about the ongoing privatization of America's industrial military complex -- prisons included -- gets palmed into a story about the loss of journalism to lowest common denominator commercial rewards, for which there isn't even yet a viable metric. Between State of Play and the upcoming film The Soloist, the stank of the death of newspapers is upon cinema like grease on fish-and-chip paper. When McAffrey's editor Cameron Lynne (Helen Mirren) preaches the tawdry editorial demands of the newspaper's new owners, there's a sense that the unseen capitalist pigs are also to blame for the diffused nature of what should have been a blood-curdling thriller about the desperate state of our country where corporations and banks are the only ones free to "play" while everyone else has to pay.

(Universal) Rated PG-13, 118 mins. (C)
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