17 April 2009

State of Play

Urban: Thrilling at times with lots of Twists and Turns, maybe one too many.
Lucas: A slowly-growing story of an investigation, that mutates too suddenly.

In State of Play, director Kevin Macdonald, goes behind the scenes of modern day Washington D.C., detailing the combination of government, big business, and press in order to tell a tale where the lies and twists are plentiful. Russell Crowe (Cal McAffrey), Ben Affleck (Rep. Stephen Collins), and Rachel McAdams (Della Frye) provide the star power, portraying the old school press, the government, and the new school of blogging press, respectively. When a link is found between two seemingly unrelated murders, the great machines of D.C. go into gear working with and against each other.

One of the marks of a great piece of art is that it can stand up to criticism from a variety of angles. This film can be taken apart on many levels. While the conflicts between government accountability, the press, and privatized security companies that thrive off of government contracts take center stage, the film could also be read as a variety of critiques on sub-conflicts that our society currently deals with. The issues that the press deals with; withholding the names of sources, catering to media corporations instead of local leadership, the fight for resources between newspaper reporters and new style bloggers, biting that hand that feeds you with government stories and sources, getting too close to the source, misplacing the role of story when a police case is still open, and most relevant- the decline of news in print form, are all felt quite strongly in this film.

As mentioned above, the film sent a strong message about the importance of the journalistic process. Crowe is a white knight battling against all those who would turn journalism into a purely money-gaining enterprise, nicely paralleling Affleck's fight to keep national defense in the hands of the government rather than a for-profit company. The theme of corrupted ideals is prevalent, which may be why the filmmakers opted for the ending they did.

While the characters are good, the intrigue of the story is really what drives this film. Despite this, it is hard to give too many details because of the nature of the many twists of the plot. The action is limited to only three short scenes. The rest of the film consists of conversations between the characters and shots of people driving too and from meetings. While it seems like this may get dreary, the combination of Crowe and McAdams actually is quite interesting and works to develop many of the themes found within the film. Affleck plays himself as always. In this one he’s a toolish Congresman from Pennsylvania who finds himself in a perilous position when his lover (even though he is married) is murdered and he realizes that his position on a powerful committee has been compromised.

The movie was about the chase, digging deeper and deeper into a story until the truth starts to take slow shape. One clue means a dozen new angles to check out, all but one of which lead nowhere. But that one new clue starts the process all over again. Finally, after many phone calls, much wheeling and dealing, and even some shooting and low-level extortion, it seems as though Crowe and McAdams have a handle on what really happened. Then, the movie decides to turn into an Agatha Christie novel, and a subtle clue turns the whole story on its head.

Crowe turned in a typically fine performace, playing the petulant child for his editor, the gruff mentor for McAdams, and the grown-apart old lover for Penn, all within a single character. Some of the minor characters, such as Jason Bateman's sleazeball PR guy, and the two reporters assigned to help Crowe with his investigation brought welcomed comic relief to a movie that was in danger of being over-dramaticized.

Artistically, the only real theme that rose to the surface was the repeated shots of helicopters flying above the city. We never get ‘feed’ from these choppers, we just see them flying. So, we never know whether they are surveillance by the government, a news team reporting, or even, some combination of the two. Nevertheless, director Macdonald does maintain a certain amount of art in the consistency with which he portrays his characters. One of the best shots in this vein occurs during the first meeting between Congressman Collins (Affleck) and his wife. Affleck is easily recognizable in a back hallway, but he is maintained in the shadows during the entire meeting with his wife. In fact, Affleck is filmed in the shadows, or briefly emerging from the shadows in nearly every scene in which he makes an appearance. Of course this is foreshadowing, but it also seems organic within the context of the film.

This film had a love affair with the city of Washington. As far as I could tell, all of the exterior shots were done on location, and as an area resident, it did a lot to enhance the movie's credibility. They didn't concentrate on the monuments that everyone and his high-school tour group has seen again and again, but rather on the monuments for the locals, such as Ben's Chili Bowl, the Americana Hotel, and even the Metro system. Kudos to the filmmakers for keeping the film authentic in that regard, and showing off some of what D.C. has to offer for non-tourists.

I feel that I must say this, even though it may ruin the film for some. The ending is garbage. It would have been much better and more satisfying (for the viewer) to end the film about 15 minutes earlier, before the big twist kicks in. To add to this, the images being shown over the credits really bring home the point about the importance of the newspaper and reporter as a democratic necessity. It just seems kind of out of place considering that this was a theme that arose, but certainly not the central issue of the film.

The last 15 minutes felt like a deus ex machina set up to allow Crowe to take his stand on the side of journalism rather than friendship. That's a fine ending, and it makes sense for Crowe's character, but it wasn't supported by the rest of the plot. Even Affleck's character says that he thought Crowe's initial theory on the murder was correct. Drop the last 15 minutes, and you lose Crowe's life choice, but gain a coherent movie.

Urban: Recommended, mainly because of the other weak offerings at the cinema this weekend.
Lucas: Recommended, for D.C. residents, and those don't mind non sequitur endings.

1 comment:

  1. http://www.nypost.com/seven/04212009/gossip/pagesix/wrong_picture_165418.htm

    The best part of all of this was that Spitzer took his daughter to see it. I feel like his idea was saying to his daughter "look baby, all the big wigs do it".

    Rachel said she saw them filming it on location in DC, and she heard news about it everywhere she went. I will make a trip to see it soon myself.

    I love the site guys!