State of Play
Directed by Kevin Macdonald
screenplay by Matthew Michael Carnahan and Tony Gilroy


The new film from Kevin Macdonald - whose most recent feature was the edgy and impressive The Last King of Scotland - is a "non-stop thriller" that is heavy on technique but light on substance. The screenplay, by relative neophyte Matthew Michael Carnahan and experienced action-adventure writer, director and "script-doctor" Tony Gilroy, is long on snappy dialogue and limited but effective character development, but beyond that the writing leaves a lot to be desired.

The story revolves around a series of deaths that take place in the Washington, D.C. area. One is the assassination-style shooting of a petty thief and drug addict and a pizza delivery manager-in-training, on a dark back-street. The second is the death of a congressional staffer who falls in front of a subway train.

Unraveling how these incidents are related becomes the focus of a story by investigative reporter Cal McAffrey (Russel Crowe) a throwback to the hard-drinking, hard-digging "newshawks" of journalistic legend (and 1930s and 40s film).

His job is complicated by the fact that one of those caught up in the tangle of plot-lines is his old college roommate and close friend (now Congressman) Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck). The dead staffer was his head-of-research on an investigation of the Blackwater-like private security contractor Pointcorp, and Collins, it emerges, was having an affair with her. Meanwhile McAffrey and the Congressman's wife Anne (Robin Wright Penn), who have been friends since college, in some sort of "triangle" that is hinted at, have also had a brief affair, and the emotional bond between them remains strong.

The investigation unfolds against the background of a beleaguered, once-respected newpaper, which has just been acquired by a soulless corporation and is trying to hold onto its integrity and responsibility to the public in the face of management demands for lower costs and higher profits. Added into this already rich mix is the young "cub reporter" Della Frye (Rachel McAdams)- in a "modernizing" twist, an internet blogger for the the paper's "online-edition" - who is both acolyte and competitor with her more experienced colleague.

I'm trying to avoid spoilers here, but I'm not sure if that's appropriate in this case, since the plot is so convoluted (and confused) that in researching my own uncertainties about how the many questions raised by the story are wrapped up, I found a wealth of confusion and contradictory opinion on how the various plot lines resolved - if in fact they did. This reinforced my conclusion - made in the immediate aftermath of my viewing - that the plot had holes in it you could drive several large vehicles through side-by-side.

This isn't always a weakness. Plot can be a distraction in film, Sometimes - as in Terry Gilliam's Brazil for instance, or Fellini's 8 1/2, it's the very confusion and unresolveabliity of inner experience that is the subject of the film's exploration. But, sadly, although Sate of Play makes a few feints in the direction of raising moral, social and psychological questions, in the end it deconstructs into the crassest kind of commercial action-adventure exploitation.

It's really too bad that the filmmakers made that choice. Certainly Macdonald, who expertly teased out the meaning of the "unintended consequences" of what may be meant as "good deeds," and the tangled webs in which our own self-importance and blithe disregard of implications can enmesh us, in the challenging The Last King of Scotland isn't afraid to tackle difficult material.

Screen-writer Gilroy, whose career is full of fairly run-of-the-mill action fare like the adaptations of the Bourne series and the CGI heavy Armageddon, directed (and wrote ) Michael Clayton - an edgy story about the the profound personal and social costs of corporate amorality - as his debut feature. It may be that the underdeveloped references to the underlying social and psychological problems were his contributions. Co-Writer Carnahan's two previous efforts were more-or-less formulaic action/adventure films with set-pieces like the cat-and-mouse game in the underground garage that have been reproduced in infinite (and mostly uninteresting) variation.

But there are big questions here. If newspapers, with sizeable staffs of reporters, time to investigate in depth and detail, and an interest in connecting the dots to the causes and ramifications of events are losing ground to the instant gratification of "Twitterized" news - in 140 characters or less - what does that mean for the future of a kind of government that depends on a well informed electorate?

If profit-driven corporate mentality is applied to everything from National Security to the gathering and dissemination of essential information, what does that portend for America's future? And more personally, how are the bounds between individual affection and loyalty, and social and professional responsibility drawn; in our cynical, narcissistic modern society, what criteria can be used in drawing them?

All these timely questions and many more are evoked to some degree, but they are allowed to be blown to smoke in the film's attempt to provide some edge-of-the-seat excitement. It plows through the convolutions of its plot to its laughably clichˇd conclusion, as cub reporter and grizzled veteran stroll out of the newsroom side-by-side apparently relishing a 'job well done" (except of course, that on examination of the plot, that "job" and way it has been "done" are wholly unsatisfying).

But aside from the those (admittedly major) failures, the film is well-made. Macdonald has fine directorial chops in pacing, framing, building of suspense, and in working with his actors, who turn in much better performances than the material deserves. And the co-screenwriters have a decent ear for dialogue, and sensitivity for character, writing scenes that actually do radiate some authenticity and interest. These hint at what the film might have been if those involved had been somewhat more daring and focused.

Russel Crowe gives a strong performance. Although, as I indicated above, his character is something of a walking Hollywood stereotype, from his impossibly-messy work-spaces to his bibulatory habits to his unkempt appearance (it was wonderfully ironic that in the credits there was one for "Hairdresser to Mr. Crowe"), Crowe works hard to bring McAffrey to life.

He succeeds too well, as the genuine emotional depths Crowe hints at in his best scenes actually create a conflict with and distraction from the script's need to get to its next absurd "plot point." As Crowe plays it, the role of a superannuated functionary of a dying system takes on almost heroic (although never in any grandiose sense) overtones. Crowe embodies McAffrey as an existential anti-hero - doing his best simply for the sake of having the experience of doing his best, in an absurd world - which can also be seen to some extent as analogous to Crowe's performance in this film.

Rachel McAdam acquits herself well, commanding her character's share of attention on screen, even in the presence of the larger-than-life McAffrey. The film's version of the cub-reporter is less stereotypical and more original than its take on her mentor. She's smarter, less smitten and self-deceived and more aware of her own conflicts in the situation. Thus the interplay exploring the personal and professional dynamics between Della and Cal are some of the most engaging in the film - far more interesting than the murders.

Helen Mirren is a delight - as she nearly always is - as the paper's publisher Cameron Lynne (even the character names seem contrived). She's running in territory exquisitely defined by the late Nancy Marchand, who played the newspaper publisher on television's Lou Grant. In spite of being , to some extent, written as another of the script's lazily-sketched stereotypes, Mirren brings enough of her own inner energy and idiosyncrasy to the part to make her interesting to watch.

Ben Affleck is sadly bland as the Congressman at the center of the action. To avoid giving anything away, the script tries to paint him with a "netural" affect, that comes across as lifeless and unconvincing. I've never seen anything that has convinced me that Affleck has compelling acting ability and this film doesn't do anything to improve my opinion.

Robin Wright Penn manages to be a compelling presence in few sparsely-written scenes. Her exact role in the events that unfold is one of the most contradictory and unsatisfactory elements of the plot, and it is a tribute to her own work - and that of Crowe, with whom she shares her best scenes - that she makes Anne as interesting and appealing as she does.

Secondary characters are well-cast and well-directed. They provide the kind of support that's needed to give any sense of conviction to a film that is so weakly constructed.

The production values are workmanlike and professional. The action set-pieces work quite well - despite the fact that they don't take any chances or break any new ground, just rehash action/adventure motifs we've all seen many times before. From a technical point of view, everything is dependable and solid, but unfortunately that's not enough to elevate the film as a whole.

Macdonald made The Last King of Scotland truly harrowing, psychologically and morally, as well as physically. He knows that a genuine exploration and understanding of the depths of character is central to taking the "thriller" beyond commercial formula and into the realm of worthwhile, provocative film-making.

You can see echoes of that understanding surfacing occasionally in this film, but something - perhaps laziness, perhaps working within the Hollywood studio system, perhaps his own inexperience and lack of confidence - allowed him to lose sight of the primacy of such values, and the result is a film that, in spite of fine performances and hard work, is a disappointment. One hopes Macdonald will have further chances to develop the talent which he showed in Last King, and find his way back to the vision and skills that made him so promising.

That's my take on it. What's yours?