Saturday, April 25, 2009

State of Play

We went to see the film State of Play this evening. The movie is a political thriller starring Russell Crowe, Ben Affleck, Helen Mirren and Rachel McAdams.

Crowe plays Cal McAffrey, an old-time investigative journalist working for the Washington Globe. Mirren is his acerbic editor, and McAdams is the young upstart reporter who works on the paper's online blog.

The story has a strong opening: two deaths in Washington D.C. within hours of each other. McAffrey is assigned to cover the murder of a teenage thief who specialized in stealing briefcases and then ransoming them back to the owners. McAdams, as Della Frye, is assigned to the apparent suicide (by falling in front of a train) of a researcher named Sonia working on a probe into a Blackwater-type security company called PointCorp.

Ben Affleck is the up-and-coming congressman leading the investigation into PointCorp. He also happens to be McAffrey's college roommate and the dead researcher's lover.

When news of the affair leaks out, Congressman Collins and his probe lose credibility. He turns to his old friend McAffrey for help in proving that Sonia's death was a murder, not a suicide.

It doesn't take McAffrey long to tie both Sonia and the teenage thief's deaths together. He and Della, the young blogger, team up to figure out what really happened. When the clues seem to lead to the giant corporation PointCorp, both journalists face danger.

State of Play is based on a 2003 British miniseries by the same name. But this American adaptation has an updated subplot--a running commentary on the dying world of print newspapers. The Globe has recently been purchased by a giant media conglomerate, and Helen Mirren is struggling to churn out headlines in order to keep her readership up. When McAffrey complains about the inexperienced Della who seems more interested in gossip than hard news, Mirren snaps, "She's young, she's cheap, and she turns out copy every hour."

Crowe is overweight, scruffy and guilt-ridden (he once had an affair with Congressman Collins' wife played by Robin Penn Wright). It's hard to believe that Crowe and Affleck's characters were ever college roommates. In real life, Affleck is nine years younger. Crowe's poor physical condition only aggravates that difference, making it more obvious.

Affleck is his usual wooden self, which actually works for him in this role. McAdams does a serviceable job, but it is Mirren who steals every scene she is in.

The story is tight and moves fast . . . until the less-than-satisfying ending. I often tell newbie writers to keep throwing obstacles into the protagonist's path. However, I got the impression that, this time, the producers went a bit too far. IMHO, they threw one too many obstacles into McAffrey's way and spoiled an otherwise good film.

The clip that runs over the ending credits is an unashamed love song to the newspaper industry. This elegy shows the edited story working its way through setup, printing and distribution on the Globe's print floor. It is surprisingly effective.

The film was a dab of adhesive short of a "Honk if you love newspapers" bumper sticker, but I was glad to have seen it. It reminded me that the old-time journalists we saw at work in All the President's Men are a dying breed. During Earth Week while we worry about all the species going extinct, we should save some tears for those tough-minded men and women of print newspapers.


Silicon Valley Diva said...

Thanks for the review. I definitely want to see this one.

Sharon said...

Glad to hear it's worth seeing because I plan to see this one in the theater.