Saturday, April 18, 2009

Zaki's Review: State of Play

It's a twist of timing that's either ironic or fortuitous, depending on your point of view. Just as web and TV alike have been playing the funeral dirge for print journalism in the wake of bankruptcies and reader apathy, director Kevin Macdonald's crackerjack suspenser State of Play hits theaters singing a valedictory ballad for the old fashioned, rumpled-trenchcoat brand of investigative journalism.

In a storyline adapted from the British miniseries of the same name, the film stars Russell Crowe, sporting unkempt hair and prominent gut, as Cal McCaffrey, intrepid (if bedraggled) reporter for The Washington Globe, a revered daily institution floundering in the digital age (but then, aren't they all?). While following up on two shootings that occur one rainy night in DC, McCaffrey's investigation widens to include the seemingly-unrelated death of a woman working as an aide to his close friend, the idealistic and on-the-rise congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck).

When it becomes clear that Collins is himself in the midst of investigating the ominous PointCorp (*koff*Blackwater*koff*), a military contractor with questionable ties and even more questionable practices, McCaffrey and fellow reporter Della Frye (Rachel McAdams) are soon racing to unbury the lede on a conspiracy whose tendrils stretch into the upper echelons of the DC establishment, all while trying to avoid the Dreaded Deadline Doom. And that's it for the newspaper puns from me, I promise.

Both in Macdonald's direction and the script by Matthew Michael Carnahan (itself adapted from Paul Abbott's BBC original), State of Play borrows a page from "Follow the lead, find the source" forebears like The Parallax View. Even Crowe's scruffy hair is a visual throwback to Dustin Hoffman's shaggy 'do in All The President's Men, and like Hoffman's Carl Bernstein in that film, McCaffrey uses every trick at his disposal to ingratiate himself to and disarm his sources, displaying a dogged devotion to the story that seems increasingly archaic in a world where pre-digested talking points regularly pass for reporting.

While Brad Pitt was signed to play McCaffrey until just a week before shooting commenced, it's hard to imagine that he would have been as effective (or immersive) in the role as his eventual successor. Crowe effortlessly occupies the film's center, and the Gladiator Oscar winner sparks chemistry as easily with vets like Helen Mirren (as editor-at-large Cameron Lynne) and Robin Wright-Penn (in the undernourished role of Collins' long-suffering wife) as he does with a relative newbie like McAdams.

If there is one flaw that emerges, it's in the relationship between Crowe's character and Affleck's. Though both players give it a journeyman's effort, the near-decade age difference between the two makes the conceit that they are old college roommates just a bit too hard to swallow. Still, all credit to Affleck (pinch hitting at the last minute for original choice Edward Norton) for giving it his all, and for stepping away from the Daredevil/Gigli-type roles that had consigned him to Hollywood purgatory for the past few years.

By pairing McCaffrey, the old school reporter, with Frye, the ingenue blogger tossed into the deep end of a story that was supposed to be a "mere" sex scandal, the film addresses the ongoing collision between print and new media head-on. Though the resulting partnership proves advantageous in the short term, the future is still hazy in a world where carpal tunnel syndrome has replaced newsprint-smudged fingers. Never fully addressed is how the investigative reporter can even continue to exist without a monetized framework in which to function.

But then, perhaps that's one step too far for a whodunnit that, let's face it, already casts a pretty wide net. In both its intricate plotting and its methodical execution, State of Play is clearly indebted to the investigative thrillers of an earlier age, and it mostly measures up to its proud lineage. It's sad to think that real world events could well render this a period film before it even hits DVD, but if this does indeed signal the passage of a genre, then what a way to go. A

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