Friday, April 24, 2009

'State of Play' is a top notch thriller

“State of Play,” a political thriller centered on the murder of a congressman’s aid, is a top-notch piece of intelligent filmmaking made for adults. This is a film that respects its viewer’s intelligence instead of spoon feeding them mindless swill.

Russell Crowe stars as a slovenly, but efficient investigative journalist in Washington, D.C. who begins finding connections between two seemingly unrelated murders, one involving his former roommate turned congressman’s (Ben Affleck) research aid. Slowly an elaborate and ever shifting conspiracy is unraveled.

On the level of plot not much else can be revealed as it would undermine the film’s best surprises. There are twists upon twists in this film, but each new turn is so carefully placed that the film never feels cheap or eye-rolling.

The film has an excellent pedigree. Director Kevin McDonald’s first film was the first rate “Last King of Scotland” and the cast is populated with some of the best and brightest actors working today.

The cast is so strong that even minor roles are populated by the likes of Jeff Daniels, Robin Wright Penn and Jason Bateman ("Hancock"), who appears late in the film to provide some comic relief, but also reveals some serious acting.

Helen Mirren (“The Queen”) is completely believable as Crowe's editor. Rachel McAdams (“The Notebook,” “Red Eye”) is a blogger that Crowe teams up with to research and write the story.

McAdams is one of the more underrated actresses in her generation and she and Crowe have a nice dynamic. The film thankfully never attempts to force a romantic subplot between the two. They are simply colleagues who learn to respect and trust each other.

Affleck, who after several years of bad career moves, is back on track. As he did in “Hollywoodland,” he has taken a supporting role in an ensemble film and proves he can act when he isn’t in a big dumb action movie.

The screenplay is written by Tony Gilroy, the writer and director of “Michael Clayton” and “Duplicity,” Billy Ray, who wrote and directed “Breach” and “Shattered Glass” and Matthew Michael Carnahan who wrote “The Kingdom" and “Lions for Lambs.” These are writers that write smart films that aren’t clear cut or black and white.

“State of Play” is based on a six hour BBC mini-series and the screenwriters deserve a lot of credit for finding a way to cut the screen time in third and still have a film that is coherent. The timeline of events is perhaps too condensed, especially towards the resolution, but things are never confusing. McDonald keeps the film moving briskly, but not at the expense of character development.

Given that newspapers are going bankrupt and shutting their doors across the country, many are wondering if this will be the last newspaper film. The film is aware of the current state of print journalism and authentically comments on it. Mirren has several scenes in which she struggles with whether to be gossip hounds or hold the story until it is accurate and solid.

“State of Play” is very much in the tradition of “All the President’s Men” and while that film may have more of a dramatic edge since it was based on true event, "State of Play" is in many ways its equal. This is compelling, surprising drama that is well worth your time and money.

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