Here’s one of my first online reviews, from April 17th, 2009. I wanted to post it here for my own archiving and also because it made me curious to look at this movie again. Haven’t thought about it in four years and I seemed to like it at the time!
It seems to have slipped into theaters with the stealth of a ninja late to class, but State Of Play is now playing and it’s worth your time.
State Of Play is the new political thriller which has been adapted from a BBC miniseries of the same name. It has been condensed and Americanized, and without having seen the original source material it can be looked at on its own terms. This version of the story focuses on a veteran D.C. journalist who investigates a scandal involving an ambitious young politician, who happens to have been his college roommate and best friend.
This is a flawed movie that is made more than viable by several suspenseful sequences, solid performances, world-class cinematography, and timely social concerns. It’s encouraging to see a big studio movie that grapples with such modern issues as war profiteering and the privatization of the military, the extinction of traditional media alongside the rise of the internet, corruption in government and flexible definitions of morality and heroism. Of course, a two-hour film can begin to buckle under the weight of so many valuable considerations, since any one of them could merit their own individual film, but State Of Play manages to remain compelling through its entire running time.
The script is credited to Matthew Carnahan (The Kingdom), Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton), and Billy Ray (Shattered Glass). The director is Kevin Macdonald, who also made One Day In September (a truly necessary documentary) and The Last King Of Scotland (a movie which has even more to offer than Forest Whitaker’s phenomenal performance). The movie was filmed by the great cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (Amores Perros, 8 Mile, 25th Hour, Brokeback Mountain, 21 Grams, Babel). So the pedigree is strong, even before one gets to the cast list.
Russell Crowe plays the beleaguered journalist, Cal McAffrey. It seems to be an unpopular opinion recently, but here it is: Crowe continues to be one of the best actors working in the world. No matter what time period a story is set in, Crowe is never less than entirely authentic, and that is certainly the case here, as – rare for Russell – he plays a contemporary character. Crowe convinces as a sharp, reliable, instinctive field reporter whose unshowy, even ramshackle methods are considered prehistoric in the era of TMZ “reporting,”
Crowe’s character initially competes with, berates, then mentors and befriends, the young blogger whose very existence at the paper signals the end of his way of working. She is played by Rachel McAdams, with just the right mixture of arrogance, excitability, naivete, and potential. The role of the veteran editor with the difficult job of teaming these two is played by Helen Mirren, who convincingly plays the pressure of managing accurate reporting, making relentless deadlines, and the need to sell papers all at once.
Robin Wright Penn wins all sympathies as the congressman’s wife, caught in the middle of a huge public ordeal involving her husband, and a more private one with their old friend the reporter. And the congressman himself? Well, he’s portrayed by the unfairly maligned Ben Affleck, who admirably conveys the image and the reality of an idealistic and genuinely altruistic public servant who may or may not be as prone to corruption as the rest of us. If there’s a problem with the casting, and there probably is, it’s that Affleck and Crowe, while perfectly cast respectively, are impossible to buy as contemporaries. Affleck comes off as even younger than he actually is, and Crowe comes off as older. Wright Penn is stuck somewhere in the middle.
Ultimately, that casting issue hurts the movie. It’s ironic, because again, the two lead actors are actually fantastic in their roles – they’re just somehow not fantastic together. It’s kind of like drinking your orange juice right after brushing your teeth – surely two good things, but things that shouldn’t happen too close to each other.
Still, State Of Play has so much to recommend it, including a deep bench of character actors too many to list (though Jason Bateman deserves a mention because he steals the entire movie away), a compelling story (though it may have one twist too many), and the fact that it sends an audience home thinking. This last point is the most important – especially now with the summer blockbuster season upon us, it’s worth supporting the movies that have something to say.