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State of Play – Crowe, Affleck, re-find their game

Russell Crowe

Russell Crowe

State of Play – Ken MacDonald

Question: you have a cleverly plotted, superbly crafted, well written movie with first class actors on top of their form: these ingredients are drawn together with assurance and style by an excellent Director and edited to a heart-beat – at times racing with the breakneck pace of events; at others following the slow pulse of quietly building tension and suspense. All of these you will find in the excellent State of Play. My question is: would you be willing to watch a treatment formed of three separate 2-hour movies a week apart say, each with a cliff-hanger ending as we do with successful TV series such as the 6 x 1 hour episodes of the original State of Play series?

I ask because although State Of Play – the movie is good, very good, and survives well the translation of political context from Britain to America; the dramatic ‘timespace’ that Director Kevin MacDonald has to work with is just one third of that Paul Abbott took to develop the characters and accumulate the tension on TV. MacDonald does well with the necessities of distillation into a tad over 2 hours but there is a sense of dramatic ‘haste’ in the last third that is very common with plot-driven movies and is perhaps the reason why some excellent thrillers often end disappointingly or unconvincingly. MacDonald wraps up State of Play better than most but there is a tendency for plot short-cut, dramatic abbreviation as the last half hour plays out. A bit like running down a hill – you’re in control until near the bottom when the gradient overcomes you and you have to go too fast just to stay up.

These nuances aside – the rest is great. MacDonald’s long time collaborating editor Justine Wright (Touching the Void, Last King of Scotland, One Day In September) does him proud: a beautifully edited pre-title opening grabs you from the first image and never lets up throughout the nicely cadenced movie. So don’t miss the beginning – it establishes the pace and sets the tone and style of the piece from the start. Once on board the rollercoaster you are fully absorbed in the ride; part of its dramatic mass – adding momentum.

MacDonald’s technical assurance shows from the beginning. It’s surprising how quickly one senses Directorial conviction and authority. Interestingly the other movie in the last year that had the same sense of mastery and control at the outset was Gone baby Gone directed by one of MacDonald’s lead actors here – Ben Affleck. Affleck’s restrained performance in State of Play is his best since Good Will Hunting and thankfully Russell Crowe is as good as he has sometimes been. To technical expertise therefore we must add that MacDonald knows how to get the best out of his actors. He is perhaps the first director since Ridley Scott in Gladiator to exploit to the full Crowe’s best acting asset – his excellent voice, which has all the resonance and expressiveness his stolid physicality lacks. His part here is perfect for this: Cal McAffrey is a run down, world weary but still committed journalist. Still sharp of mind but thick of waist, long of hair and short of patience, he is drawn into the biggest story of his life from what looks like an isolated random violent incident – simply the drug-fuelled street-musak of modern metropolitan life.

Gladiator aside, Crowe is at his best playing-off others as in say LA Confidential and notably against Denzel Washington in American Gangster. Here he has an embarrassment of play-off riches: Affleck, Helen Mirren and the adequate but smoke-without-fire Rachel McAdams as rookie journalist Della Frye: though here one does miss the wonderful Kelly MacDonald who frequently outplayed even the excellent John Simm’s McAffrey in the TV Series.

Perhaps the biggest loss in film v TV is Mirren as Washington Globe Editor Cameron Lynne – a reworking of Bill Nighy’s Cameron Foster. Nighy had 6 hours of timespace to develop a fascinating take on the mixture of tyranny, analytic pragmatism, blood and guts professionalism and anti-corporate political animus that makes a good Editor. Mirren, more than equipped to do the same, is constrained by pressures of dramatic space to try to do with a hasty sketch what Nighy had time to develop into a full-blown portrait. Nighy was the glass wall between the boardroom and the street; the sales and the copy: the suits could see the journalist but only the Editor could run him or stop him – like Ben Bradlee at the Washington Post in All The President’s Men: and real life. Mirren’s part is well written and as you would expect impeccably played, it’s just that MacDonald and fellow screenwriters M.M. Carnahan, Tony Gilroy and Billy Ray didn’t have the ‘room’ to develop ‘Cameron’ as Abbott had: hence my question at the beginning of this piece.

Fellow addicts Deshaun Stagg and girlfriend Jessy boost bags to fuel their habits. Deshaun hits paydirt with a hitman’s briefcase. Case-owner Robert Bingham is observed exchanging case for bullets by an innocent passing cyclist who he shoots but fails to kill. Journalistic loose cannon MacAffrey pursues what looks like a routine story as a parallel story breaks: his one-time college room-mate, now Congressman Steven Collins (Affleck), trying to expose a corporate fraud through a Congressional Committee, learns that his key researcher, beautiful Sonia Baker has died under the wheels of a subway train the very morning he is due to challenge ‘Pointcorp’ a security sub-contractor in the “war against terrorism”. Collins’ affair with Sonia breaks and he seeks sanctuary with old room-mate MacAffrey until things cool off. MacAffrey discovers that one of the numbers on Deshaun’s cellphone is Sonia Baker’s. In the course of his investigation of this unexpected link we learn that MacAffrey has sexual history with Stevens’s wife Anne (the delectable and under-used Robin Wright Penn – easily the best actor in the family Penn). The ethical, sexual, emotional ambiguities of State of Play are therefore nicely established.

Investigation reveals that Sonia was murdered. Collins, a star in his party’s political firmament, is protected by mentor Congressman George Fergus, a sinsterly Delphic Jeff Daniels, and advised to lay low until media frenzy abates. Initially antagonistic to blog-based Della Frye, MacAffrey insists on her staying on board for the story when Mirren tries to replace her sexy ambition with mere experience. It’s a pity that this potential chemistry under-delivers partly due to McAdams’ distinct lack of ‘feist’.

Much ambiguous contact ensues. Anne Collins, humiliated by her husband’s admission of an affair with Sonia Baker, returns to her earlier, consummated, feelings for MacAffrey. He is torn: professionally, emotionally, ethically, and by loyalty to a friend.

State of Play is about friendship, betrayal, truth. It wants to see itself as about the values of print journalism v internet journalism. Here it is unconvincing. There is no necessary connection between basic journalistic values and their means of expression. Truth is truth – digital or analogue. It may be that the on-line environment buries the truth of trees in a forest of spin and twitter but verifiable fact must always support and limit journalistic claims.

I saw State of Play at a pre-preview at Cineworld for which they should be complimented. The Q & A after with Kevin MacDonald was interesting, informative and well worth repeating as an exercise.

Many movies are over-long and would benefit greatly from the critics’ cliché of less is more. But in contrast the great benefit of a TV series is what I have called the timespace to develop character related to context in a way that reveals depth of feeling and ethical power. Kevin MacDonald has done a great job within the limitations of present conventions: a one-off movie about 2 hours long. But a bit of imagination and some adaptation of traditional marketing and promotion, could have made this an even more progressive and ground-breaking movie.

I think people might like the idea of experiencing in the cinema what they get on TV: an absorbing narrative where they are desperate to know what happens next. There is great pleasure to be had from having to wait for an answer: anticipation builds tension, as every horror/thriller-moviemaker knows.

State of Play is the best thriller since The Bourne Ultimatum that screenwriter Tony Gilroy also worked on. Its claims to say something about the challenges or threats to modern print journalism are perhaps a bit over-played, more mentioned than explored. The critical moral, political and aesthetic injunction to constantly submit power and authority to question and justification is far more important than the form in which that dissent and challenge is expressed. And yet I cannot deny a personal preference for the printed word – newspapers and books are satisfyingly tactile. The paradox of digital media is that because it offers limitless space, instant distribution and almost free access, the unique voice of a good writer, a great journalist, gets drowned out by the incessant clamour of the proudly mediocre. The internet is an increasingly noisy place where volume, not reason gets you heard.

I would have been happy to follow the complexity of State of Play through 3 cinema-based episodes. Embargo all 3 being shown at one sitting for say a month and you set up more than one viewing in the cinema with accumulating tension. Show all three at the same time afterwards and you will have people who have paid twice to see the same film. A little bit of imagination and innovation on pricing and marketing for a 3-episode cinema-based experience and you could widen the existing market for good films and offer a different cinema experience.

State of Play is a tense, absorbing thriller. I just have the feeling that for all the people who are happy to accept the compromises of wrapping the whole thing up neatly in 127 minutes, there are others, more than willing to entertain the idea that doing justice to quality material might take longer to achieve – and even enjoy the suspenseful wait.

These limitations remarked – this is still a good ‘un. Don’t miss.

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