Sometimes conspiracy thrillers are as smart as they think they are, and sometimes they just wish they could be. Perhaps each film’s success in duping its audience is assessed in the eye of each individual beholder? State of Play seems determined to encourage its audience to jump to conclusions and then pull back the curtains at the end and show them how wrong they are, and it leaves one with a subtle distaste in one’s mouth.
Congressman Steven Collins (Ben Affleck) and Washington Globe reporter Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) are long-time friends and former college roommates, but they face off from opposite sides of the news when Collins’ pretty female research assistant is seemingly accidently killed on the morning of a Congressional hearing into defense contracts. Meanwhile, a young drug addict is assassinated by a ruthless killer whose motivations will remain obscured thoughout, and a blogger at the Globe will start an investigation that just may link the whole mess together.
Originally written as a six-part television series on the BBC, this film adaptation picks up quickly and just keeps running, with nary a second of its 127 minutes wasted. There are never any flat spots or dull sequences without a direct impact on the film’s progress, and the writers must be applauded for compressing a source apparently so dense – I have not seen the original series – into a standard-length feature film. Quieter moments of exposition will reward attentive viewers with clues to the conspiracy, while occasional chase sequences and gunplay will break up the more demanding components into digestible pieces.
Crowe has the ‘everyman in a crisis’ schtick down pat, and unfortunately he isn’t asked to stretch himself much more in State of Play. There are few more reliable performers in the business, however, and his thriller pedigree is sound. Less convincing, somewhat predictably, is Affleck in the supporting protagonist’s role – somehow he still seems like a young man and to cast him against Crowe is like asking an AFL Auskick team to play against the big boys (or a Little League team vs one of the Major League clubs). Supporting turns from Rachel McAdams and Helen Mirren are strong, and Robin Wright Penn and Jason Bateman pitch in to elevate the ensemble to a high standard.
The sequence used to introduce Crowe’s McAffrey features Russ singing along to Great Big Sea’s ‘The Night Pat Murphy Died’, a nice touch from the performer who has worked with the band and obviously wanted to make a form of public thanks. Few outside of Canada and perhaps parts of the US will recognise it, but this Australian viewer was very excited indeed. Less appealing is the somewhat cheap and easy thesis that occupies much of the early sequences. The traditional journalist vs untrained (read: irresponsible, inexperienced and self-focussed) blogger theme may hold some elements of truth, but in a film seemingly so in love with journalism and so self-evidently inspired by films like All the President’s Men, it comes across as childish and petulant.
Whether State of Play can seriously consider itself in the same league as Alan J. Pakula’s multi-Oscar-winning classic of 70s cinema is not really important – the main question has to be whether the film manages to entrap its audience into guessing at the shadowy motivations of the various players, and maintain the intrigue through to its end. In this regard, director Kevin Macdonald – and, thus, the film itself – succeeds.Rating: