Friday, April 24, 2009

State of Play

How do you trim a rather brilliant six-hour BBC miniseries into an American-friendly, two-hour seat filler? With lots of stars and plenty of zipping dialogue to tell your clich├ęd story.

Director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) hired three writers (one being Tony Gilroy) to cut the fat out of the TV show and present us with a wildly entertaining political thriller.

Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck) is investigating a Blackwater-type mercenary group, when his lead investigator (who he just happens to be having an affair with) dies in an apparent suicide. Collins’ old college roommate turned veteran DC journalist, Cal (Russell Crowe) gets assigned the story. With the help of Della (Rachel McAdams), a blogger working for the paper, the two form an unlikely Woodward and Bernstein type-investigation to blow the whole ordeal wide open.

Standard fare for the genre, but the wonder of the film is how it grabs you and barely let’s go. Barely. There are moments between Collins’ wife (Robin Wright Penn) and Cal that take away from the film entirely. Their old affair is spoken of too often even though it never has a lasting effect on us or the plot. Aside from that hiccup, State of Play is enthralling cinema.

If you’ve caught a look at the trailers, you can guess what the best part of the movie is. Helen Mirren, as the tell-it-like-it-is no bullshit editor, is remarkable in her every minute on screen. Listening to her bark orders is a real pleasure; there is no actress out there who can better deliver the line ‘fuck you very much’ with such a sense of uncanny wit.

The rest of the cast is reliably good, notably Jason Batemen, who has a cameo as a sleazy PR executive, and Ben Affleck who does small wonders of character work with a slight Philadelphia accent. But I would’ve loved to have seen the movie as first conceived. State of Play has been in limbo for several years. When first casting, Brad Pitt was set to play the journalist opposite Edward Norton as Collins. That would’ve been devilishly good.

I give credit to this film for dealing with an issue that no other movie has brought up. That’s the eminent notion of internet takeover of print journalism. Brilliantly exhausted on the final season of The Wire, State of Play pays tribute to real stories on real paper, ink smears and all. There’s a great line by McAdams when she says how people need to read this story while holding a paper, not online.

The film remains a constant nail biting experience that had me guessing until the end. And believe me, Macdonald respects his audience, and their intelligence. Be sure to watch the amusing sequence that begins the credits, even though it would’ve made a better opening to the film. B+

Note: Viola Davis shows up briefly in a throwaway role as a coroner. Davis has delivered astonishing, albeit brief, performances in Antwone Fisher, World Trade Center, Doubt, and more. So my question is: why can’t someone give this woman a lead role already?

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