STATE OF PLAY ***
Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Cliches become well worn reality for a reason. It’s because there is always a glimmer of truth (sometimes much, much more…) in nearly all of them.
In Washington, D.C., on a cold, clear evening, a slight young man dodges traffic across a highway with multiple lanes. He runs into an alley – cowering, frightened. He meets his end by way of an assassin’s bullet.
The next morning, SONIA BAKER, an aide to rising congressional star STEPHEN COLLINS (BEN AFFLECK) is in the process of taking the subway to work. The alluring redhead never makes it out of the station alive.
The fact that Ms. Baker was having an affair with the marrried politician soon comes to light. Stephen Collins is a decent, principled sort. But his marriage to the beautiful ANNE (ROBIN WRIGHT) had become problematic and highly strained. Sonia acted as a wondrous refuge in the midst of all his misery.
Enter CAL McAFFREY (RUSSELL CROWE), a long time reporter for the WASHINGTON GLOBE.
Cal is an easygoing ruffian. Less hard nosed seeker of truth than well liked party boy who lives to discover a good story. At least, that is what you would automatically assume at first glance.
You first see him as he’s driving his ancient Saab, GREAT BIG SEA blaring from his CD player – with one hand on the steering wheel and the other throwing copious amounts of junk food into his mouth.
Cal needs to know what happened to Sonia. There are complications. Stephen is an old friend. Cal also has a history (however ancient) with Anne.
But Cal, like most of the people that populate this film, is not exactly who he appears to be. He has a much darker personality than you immediately suspect. At his core, he possesses decency, a sense of fairness and a good heart. But he’s extremely flawed. If he has to bend the rules to get what he wants (personally or professionally), then so be it.
DELLA FRYE (RACHEL McADAMS) writes a Capitol Hill blog for the paper. She’s young, hungry, motivated, exceptionally driven. This is not a woman who waits to be taken seriously.
She is also interested in the circumstances surrounding Sonia’s demise. She thinks that Sonia may have been murdered. She seeks out Cal to get his opinion. With great condescension, he tells her that he’ll have to read a few more blogs to find out where he stands.
Their tough, uncompromising boss CAMERON LYNNE (HELEN MIRREN) is caught between a rock and a hard place. Cameron’s glacial patrician glamour does not detract from her authority at all.
She despairs that the hard news that she feels is vastly important is being devalued at the expense of blogging and essentially empty entertainment stories. Cameron has to pay more attention to the bottom line than ever before. The paper is under new ownership and she must insure that it retains its profitability. The stakes are high and so is the pressure.
Over time, Cal realizes that Della may have far more to offer as a colleague than he ever realized. With her help, Cal feels equipped to get to the bottom of this sordid tale and discover exactly what’s being going on.
But when everything has been uncovered, will he be ready for it?
STATE OF PLAY is gorgeously shot and supremely edited. It’s compelling, gripping, blackly humorous and sharp as a tack. This film is extremely well written by MATTHEW MICHAEL CARNAHAN, BILLY RAY and the fabulous TONY GILROY.
KEVIN MacDONALD fares far better here than he was directing the ridiculous, leaden and overhyped THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND. You need to be an intelligent, insightful, detail oriented filmmaker to put the pieces of this puzzle together effectively. He fulfills this task easily.
The acting is superb throughout.
The incredible VIOLA DAVIS only has one scene (with Russell). But she holds her own magnificently.
However, there are three superior standouts.
HELEN MIRREN is sensational (despite her fairly limited screen time) as the blunt, keenly perceptive CAMERON.
There’s a wonderful scene where Cameron is essentially demoting Della from the story. Della worked hard and got a lot of the essential details in place. But Cameron thinks that it will be over her head at this stage. So she’s bringing in another more seasoned journalist.
Cameron, Cal and Della (all deep in discussion) are walking out of the office. Della is upset.
“Are you taking me off the story?!”
Cameron shakes her head. She won’t coddle Della. She doesn’t need to hear the truth right now. “No. I just need someone to oversee.”
“But I’ve done a lot of work. I have to be there.”
“No problem. It will all be fine.”
Cal is on to Cameron. “I need her. Don’t do this.”
Cameron waves him off. “She doesn’t have the experience.”
Cal thinks fast. He looks at Della. “You want it. Fight for it. Don’t let her off the hook.”
Della squares her jaw and makes an impassioned plea. “Just give me a few more days. I won’t let you down.”
By now they’re at the elevator.
Cameron’s outnumbered. “Oh, don’t look at me with those cub reporter cow eyes.”
Cameron is utterly exasperated and at the end of her rope. She shrugs in an off hand manner. There’s nothing she can do. The die has been cast.
“Fine. You can stay.”
She looks at Cal menacingly. Just before she walks through the doors, she mutters hotly, “Fuck you very much.”
Then there’s JASON BATEMAN, who is excellent as sleazy publicist DOMINIC FOY. From the moment he exits his sleek black Cadillac for a lunch meeting with Cal, you can see that this strung out amoral chump is every parent’s nightmare. He’s the trash without the euro.
When he propositions Della, he is unreservedly blatant. He asks her up front if she’s sleeping with Cal. When he gets no response (aside from a thunderstruck look), then he inquires as to whether she’s doing anything with anyone else. He informs her that he currently has both a male lover and a girlfriend…and if she plays her cards right there just might be room for her as well. It’s enough to get you to take a shower that lasts all weekend long.
As always, there’s RUSSELL CROWE. The man can do no wrong.
CAL is a tortured soul who plays the happy go lucky mischief maker. He’s far more world weary than that. But he covers it up flawlessly.
RUSSELL has such fantastic charisma. Just one microscopic look from his azure eyes and you know precisely how CAL feels. No need for a word of dialogue.
He also has phenomenal hair…
The deeply imtriguing part of this film has to do with the convergence of politics, journalism, ethics and the pursuit of power.
This is one of the first films out of the gate that directly tackles the blogging issue. Writing, newspapers and media have been completely transformed by the internet.
Many people (mostly of an older generation) took a great deal of pride in completing degrees, accumulating experience and receiving deserving prestigious awards for their diligence, dedication and artistic gifts.
Now newspapers are closing. A number of them have been transformed into on line editions. People are reading news via computer and paying an enormous amount of attention to bloggers.
Though admittedly some individuals with their own websites lack college credentials, world class fame, extensive experience and/or accolades, many of them are extraordinarily talented writers. At least as much (if not more so) than the preceding generations of journalists.
There is a lot of resentment regarding this upheaval. Much of it is understandable. Some of it is classic. The old guard will naturally have a rather large disdain for the new breed. There’s no escaping that notion. That will never go away.
But no one made the rules. Situations continuously evolve. Whether it’s positive or negative is always a matter of individual perspective.
STATE OF PLAY could easily have been a perfectly ordinary well made – albeit generic – thriller. But at approximately the midpoint, it turns into something far more substantial.
It transcends all of the usual situations and goes in some surprising, rather astonishing directions.
You definitely will not be disappointed.
It’s an awfully satisfying bang for the buck…