© 2009 Ray Wong
Once in a while there comes a thriller so well-written, with great characters and interesting plot twists, that you wonder why they don't make more of them. State of Play is such a well-crafted piece of cinematic magic.
Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe), an investigative reporter for the Washington Post, is doing a story on a seemingly random drug-related homicide. When a young congressional aid, Sonia Baker (Maria Thayer), dies in a subway accident, Cal's attention shifts to his friend and college roommate, Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck). Baker was the lead researcher for Collins in a congressional case against a private military company named Point Corp. It appears that Collins and Baker also have a romantic relationship. Washington finds its new political scandal and Collins is asked to lay low, thus jeopardizing his position in the Point Corp. hearings.
While Collins is doing damage control, Cal obtains new leads and realizes that the homicide and Baker's death may be related. In fact, he's convinced that Sonia Baker was murdered. With the help of a rookie reporter, Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), and the reluctant support of his boss, editor Cameron Lynne (Helen Mirren), ambitious Cal risks his life by digging deep, deliberately holding evidence and information from the police so he can get his story first.
Russell Crowe (American Gangsters) is a true actors' actor. Here, he's put away his movie star charisma, gained twenty pounds, and disappeared under a full head of unkempt hair to play the gruff reporter. His performance is solid and intense. He certainly carries the movie. Rachel McAdams (The Lucky Ones) holds her own against Crowe in a smaller role as an ambitious reporter who may have bit off more than she could chew. Crowe and McAdams make a good team, but this is essentially Crowe's show.
Ben Affleck (He's Just Not That Into You) seems out of place. It's not as if he didn't look the part as a young, hot shot politician. But his performance is the weakest link and his public persona as the movie star also hinders the role he plays. Helen Mirren (Inkheart) is always wonderful and she makes no exception in playing the editor with certain roughness, ruthlessness, and heart.
The all-star cast also includes Robin Wright Penn (Beowulf) as Collins's wife, who is tired of living a lie and carries a torch for Cal. Jason Bateman (Hancock) is effective as a douche who has pivotal information for the investigation. Jeff Daniels (Traitor) has a few good scenes as a corrupt politician. Michael Berresse (AI) is creepy as the assassin, and Harry Lennix (Across the Universe) does a good job as an unsympathetic police detective.
Based in the 2003 acclaimed, hit British series, State of Play is written by Matthew Michael Carnahan (Lions for Lambs), Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton) and Billy Ray (Breach), all veterans of political thrillers and dramas. The adaptation moves the story to the States, but the plot remains close to the original. The writers are top-notch in weaving the intricate plot twists and mystery, creating great tension and suspense. The dialogue is sharp and the plot unfolds in an organized and structured way that is never confusing, even with the number of plot threads and characters.
Those who are observant and smart enough would probably figure out the plot twists, but they're great twists nonetheless. The writers put tremendous thoughts into the storytelling, keeping their tricks close to the vest. They also attend to great details in terms of journalistic operations and police procedures. There are a few places where the plot and characterization seem forced. For example, the final revelation seems somewhat contrived. But such flaws are minor and they don't impact the overall quality of the film.
Kevin Macdonald's (The Last King of Scotland) direction is taut, suspenseful, and detailed. He gives us a great sense of what investigative journalism is about without sacrificing the pace and character development. He makes great use of juxtapositions, foreshadowing, and tension building, as well as effective misdirection to create mystery and suspense. The result is a nail-biting cinematic experience and a thriller that does not rely on big explosions and outrageous plot wrangling. There is no end-of-the-world scenario; the stakes seem intimate. In fact, the thriller is refreshingly human, psychological, and personal.
Well played, guys.
Stars: Russell Crowe, Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams, Helen Mirren, Robin Wright Penn, Jason Bateman, Jeff Daniels, Michael Berresse, Harry Lennix
Director: Kevin Macdonald
Writer: Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gilroy, Billy Ray (based on Paul Abbott's TV series)
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some violence, language, sexual references, brief drug content
Running Time: 127 Minutes
Script – 8
Performance – 8
Direction – 9
Cinematography – 8
Editing – 8
Production – 8
Total – 8.1 out of 10