Saturday, 14 November 2009

Review: State of Play, dir. Kevin Macdonald (2009)

Russell Crowe is excellent as the hard-boiled journo, Cal McAffrey, in this dark-coloured, brooding, slightly-grungy film that details illegal collusion between politicians and a giant, private defense contractor called PointCorp.

McAffrey's colleague and occasional side-kick in the drama is the perky, ironic Della Frye (played by Rachel McAdams), a society blogger who also works at the struggling masthead, The Washington Globe.

The paper is led by a frazzled-looking Helen Mirren playing Cameron Lynne, the editor-in-chief.

The action opens with an attempted double-murder, with a junkie causing mayhem as he runs to escape his pursuer. He thinks he has got away but takes two slugs. A passing cyclist is hospitalised.

The next morning, congressional researcher Sonia Baker falls under a train and is killed.

McAffrey swings into action trying to tie together the two cases in the face of heavy objections from Lynne, who is trying to hold off pressure from the newspaper's new owners to publish schlock.

The experienced journalist and the fresh, young writer spend a few scenes bouncing off one another as they take stock of their new relationship. In time, they pull together against the common foe: tabloid journalism. McAffrey is lucky; the first break coming when his bag is stolen by a drug-addict who leads him to a set of photos showing the dead researcher from the point of view of a stalker.

Congressman Stephen Collins (played by Ben Affleck) is an old friend of McAffrey's. The two of them settle into a routine of misunderstanding and recrimination as they try to uncover the truth.

Cracking a big story like the one we begin to sniff out as the story unfolds is a reporter's dream. Unfortunately, the characters are just a little too wooden and two-dimensional. Cagey congressman George Fergus (played by Jeff Daniels) doesn't hold enough menace, and the PointCorp executive (played by Tuck Milligan) is not sleazy enough.

The best of the bunch, in my view, is Dominic Foy (played by Jason Bateman), a washed-out PR flack who drives a big, black, shiny car but has no spine. The scenes with Foy and McAffrey in the seedy Americana Hotel are a high point.

It all unravels pretty fast once Foy starts to spill what he knows.

There's also a breathless, long scene in the garage of a large apartment building, with McAffrey struggling to evade a rogue militiaman, Robert Bingham (played by Michael Berresse). He is finally saved by a family of loquacious Chinese-Americans whose SUV's rear window is shattered by bullets as it careens out of the garage with McAffrey clinging stoicly to the window frame.

There's action and there's corruption. What else does a film about journalists need?

Well, there's McAffrey's essential humanity. Despite what he's told, McAffrey doesn't become jaded. He remains able to buy a can of soft drink for an indigent young woman and he seems to have friends all over the city.

He's clearly a man who likes people. It's a good model for a journalist.

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