I was lucky to see a pre-release promotional screening of State of Play, directed by Kevin Macdonald, with a screenplay by Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gilroy and Billy Ray. Promotional screenings are interesting because there are no previews and the audience is generally in a very upbeat, lively mood because the tickets are free: it’s just to generate buzz in the local community (and to screen the film for reviewers like myself).
Let me cut the suspense: like many modern Hollywood thrillers, State of Play had more than its share of plot twists, complex character motivations and exciting scenes where you weren’t sure what was going to happen, but it also had the “make sure you get this, stupid audience” flashback scenes (I’ll explain a bit later in the review) and plot holes big enough to make you wonder if anyone actually read the script all the way through before they started production.
A grade? B.
Universal Pictures and Relativity Media cast well-known Hollywood actors in the film: it headlines Russell Crowe, Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams, and Helen Mirren and also features Robin Wright Penn and Jason Bateman in important supporting roles.
Unfortunately, while they’re all well-known to various degrees, they’re not all good actors. Russell Crowe shines as a crotchety reporter for the fictional Washington Globe, but Ben Affleck just isn’t believable as a congressman married to Robin Wright Penn. Part of the problem is his wooden, unemotional acting, but part of it was the casting: Penn is Crowe’s peer agewise, not Affleck’s, but is cast as Affleck’s wife, a problem that exacerbates important character motivation when she comes on to Crowe after sharing her upset that Affleck has had an affair with one of his congressional researchers.
I want to single out Rachel McAdams, though, because not only was she given a nonsensical role, as the Globe’s “cub” political blogger Della Frye, but she didn’t do anything with the role either.
As a blogger myself, I found it inadvertently entertaining that “Della” was ostensibly the young cub reporter (a cliché role that Mirren parodies at one point) deep in the so-called blogosphere but rarely used her cellphone and almost never typed anything into her computer. In the course of this exciting story of conspiracy, congressional misdeeds and corporate malfeasance, she never broke away to blog about it! At one point she and Cal McAffrey (Crowe) have a discussion and she says she’d rather develop the story fully than blog about it prematurely. Uh, what? No blogger in the world would rather potentially lose a scoop than break a sketchy, partially developed story, especially in the political space!
State of Play is based on a 2003 BBC series of the same name and to be fair, it was an enjoyable conspiracy movie, where reporter Crowe is old college roommates with congressman Affleck, who has had an affair with Maria Thayer (playing Sonia Baker). Early in the film Baker is murdered in a complex conspiracy where people aren’t who you think they are and motivations are more complex than it seems.
The problem with this entire genre – with a few notable exceptions, like the brilliant Mamet film The Spanish Prisoner – is that they’re too tightly plotted. Every single element is critical, every question one character asks another is on target, every prop that we’re shown becomes important later in the story. This is counterproductive because you know that you’re being led by the nose through the storyline, and you never worry that characters are being misled or following a dead end. There are no dead ends in these sort of films, to their detriment.
Alfred Hitchcock talked about what he called the “mcguffin”, a deliberate red herring that was intend purely to mislead you, the viewer, into thinking you understood what was going on. It was deliberately meant to make the film more interesting, and films like State of Play would be far, far more interesting if they made use of a mcguffin in the script.
But then again, too many modern filmmakers seem to feel that we viewers are complete clueless gits anyway. You can see that when they have the characters explain the denouement and use the nauseating flashback to show us what happened earlier in the film, just in case we weren’t paying attention. In this film, Macdonald only does it once, but, man!, it just drives me crazy. A four second edit and the film would have been better. Really.
I admit that I am quite a fan of caper films where there’s an intricately plotted crime or conspiracy and we get to ride along with the characters as they either plan or uncover the full story. Good examples of this genre are The Italian Job and Nine Queens. They’re fun and give a nice narrative storyline when they’re done right. When they aren’t, however, the film collapses and makes no sense. You’re left saying “huh? wait a sec, how can that have been true?”
I won’t spoil the movie for you, dear reader, but the final scenes where Crowe realizes that something he’s taken as true cannot be true because of a slip from Wright Penn actually fails to make sense within the context of the narrative. My film-watching friend and I were left scratching our heads, saying “what? how could she know that?” That’s not exactly how you want to have the final Big Twist leave your audience!
Nonetheless, I have to say that I did find State of Play quite enjoyable as an action thriller, with Crowe’s Cal McAffrey as a strong character and the many exterior shots of various Washington DC locales an opportunity for the city to be another character in the film, without the usual cliché White House, Lincoln Memorial, etc.