Film review – State of Play (2009)

Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) and Della Frye (Rachel McAdams)
Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) and Della Frye (Rachel McAdams)

State of Play is the second feature length drama directed by the Academy Award winning documentary maker Kevin Macdonald. Previously he directed the incredibly powerful Last King of Scotland and State of Play certainly opens in a way that promises to be just as good. The sequence in which a desperate man fails to get away from a highly trained assassin is given a messy and rough feel through the use of handheld cameras to emphasise the panic and urgency of the situation. The first person style of the cinematography generates a feeling of surveillance and the derelict street setting emphasises the dark world that this film is taking us into. However, this initial stylistic promise soon gives way to a very conventional way of filming, which represents the film for what it is – a typical thriller, combining the core ingredients of a murder investigation, political sex scandal and corporate conspiracy.  There is nothing wrong with a good generic thriller if it sustains interest but unfortunately State of Play gets bogged down in tedious details and two-dimensional characters too early.

State of Play is an adaptation of a highly acclaimed 6 part BBC series from 2003, with the action now moved to Washington DC. Russell Crowe is Cal McAffrey, a crusty old-school journalist who begins to look into a story concerning the suspicious death of a woman who was having an affair with his former college roommate, who also happens to be a U.S. Congressman, played by Ben Affleck. Reluctantly at first, of course, McAffrey teams up with a young journalist to get to the bottom of the case. State of Play pays lip service to a number of issues including new media versus traditional journalism, the compromising of journalistic integrity and the moral line between pursuing a story and impeding a police investigation.

Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) and Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck)
Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) and Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck)

However, State of Play is not really too concerned about such lofty themes and instead is simply a variation on the journalist-as-investigator narrative. Unfortunately, trite investigation montage sequences and some very contrived scenarios mean that State of Play is more Nancy Drew than All The Presidents Men. Although State of Play contains some very relevant and contemporary themes about the privatisation of security forces and war profiteering, the blunt anti-corporate message feels like a cheap shot rather than a considered analysis or exposé. State of Play works OK on a purely generic basis and it does begin excitingly and concludes satisfactorily, although the surprise twist is only slightly more interesting than the contrived dénouement in Angels & Demons.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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  1. CINEMA AUTOPSY EDIT – Spoiler alert

    I lost concentration at the end and now I have no idea what Ben Afflect’s senator was supposed to be up to. Was he actually in league with the corporation the senate committee was investigating? What exactly was his crime? I would appreciate some light on this issue. Thank you.

  2. MAJOR spoiler alert!

    Hi Robert – I kind of stopped paying attention myself I have to admit!

    But the twist was that the assassin who killed the woman wasn’t hired by the corporation, but was hired by the senator who suspected her (correctly) of spying on him. However, the assassin took matters into his own hands and killed her, even though she had stopped spying for the corporation. So the senator’s crime was to hire this assassin, have him spy on his lover and then stay quiet about the whole thing after she is murdered.

    I hope that helps!

  3. Thomas,
    Thank you indeed – that certainly clarified matters. I must have missed a vital comment somewhere along the line.

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