Tuesday, April 21, 2009

State of Play Provides Internet-Age Newspaper Thriller

Everyone in State of Play, the new Russell Crowe/Ben Affleck thriller, is appropriately stressed about their job. Cal McAffrey (Crowe), veteran newspaperman and reporter, is stressed that his job might be replaced by younger and sexier blogger Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), who is stressed that her fluff-friendly internet coverage won't get the respect deserved from senior editor Cameron Lynne (played with wonderful courseness by Helen Mirren), who is stressed that her paper is quickly losing the revenue it needs to continue doing real journalism as the civic watchdog investigating politicians like Ben Affleck's Stephen Collins, who is, one must say, most supremely stressed since the untimely and suspicious death of his illicit girlfriend. And oh, by the way, did I mention that McCaffrey and Collins also happen to be old college roommates and best friends, who share more than just a late night remembrance or two? So this question of which relationship is more important - their friendship, or the reporter/politician relationship - makes all of them even more stressed.

And all that would be quite enough if they weren't also hunting - or at times being hunted by - a mysterious murderous marksman who might be behind the slaying of Collins girlfriend, and perhaps an even larger conspiracy as well.

Mix newspapermen, bloggers, politics, and conspiracies, and you've got me hooked, so I thoroughly enjoyed this movie despite its letdown ending and ragged sloppiness along the way. Crowe and Affleck bring the kind of intensity that makes you forget their lesser work and enjoy the heated game of cat and mouse between two heavy-weight stars.

But perhaps what I enjoyed most about State of Play are the self-conscious quotations to another great newspaper/conspiracy movie, All the President's Men. There's the strategic use of the Watergate Hotel. There's an appropriately tense encounter in a parking garage. There's even a Woodward and Bernstein type money shot at the end of the movie. The only thing this film is missing that All the President's Men has going for it is a really well-thought-out conspiracy.

The conspiracy we do get is certainly timely (dealing as it does with private military contractors - one cannot help but compare to this season's 24), though it doesn't get to deliver the goods with as much deliciousness as one would hope. Still, what makes up for this is the interplay between Crowe's Woodward and McAdam's Bernstein along the way, as they hunt down the clues that start to bring all the lose threads together. Meanwhile, Mirren does her masterful interpretation of the Jason Robards/Ben Bradlee gruff and cynical editor, and the trio make a rather entertaining bunch. Affleck's sweaty politician isn't bad either.

So while the ending might not stack up to the rest of the movie, and Crowe's schleppy "ace reporter" attire and beer gut get to be a bit of a distraction after a while, there are plenty of scenes here to keep you holding tightly to the seat while you wait to see what's behind the next door, or give you that satisfying "ah-ha" when they drop the next clue. And while we probably won't see this movie at the Academies next year, this is definitely the kind of Saturday night thriller that you won't regret hiring a babysitter for and planning the night around.

It also has a pretty good message. If it does one thing well, this movie reminds us why our Democracy depends upon real newspapers, not just bloggers. That's a message even a blogger like me can get behind.

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