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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Slanting the Truth: Politicians & the Fourth Estate
by John P. McCarthy

State of Play is the ideal movie for those hankering to watch a tense political thriller similar to the ones that seemed to appear with regularity during the 1970s. It will also be catnip to anyone lamenting the dire economic straits of newspapers and print journalism today. Fortunately for the film's distributors and producers, these two sets of potential moviegoers are bound to overlap; unfortunately, they'll never contain the majority of ticket buyers -- those yet-to-be-born thirty years ago and who prefer to get their news and information online.

A reworking of a BBC miniseries about intrigue in the smoke-filled backrooms and beleaguered newsrooms of Washington, DC, State of Play delivers nearly all the pleasures of a well-written news article built on solid reporting and sound journalistic method. It's engrossing, entertaining, and (this is where the analogy ends) more-or-less informative.

Russell Crowe, sporting a haircut and wardrobe stylish in 1977, stars as Cal McAffrey, an ink-stained reporter at The Washington Globe. Cal is a shaggy-haired, no-nonsense scribbler of the old school. He listens to Irish music while driving around the District in his filthy 1990 Saab. He lives for his job. Investigating the murder of a junkie one rainy night in Georgetown, Cal discovers a link between the crime and the death of a Congressional aide.

It quickly comes out that the deceased Capitol Hill worker was a researcher on a committee chaired by McAffrey's college roommate Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck) and that she and Collins were having an affair. Further stoking the conspiratorial fires, the congressman's committee is conducting hearings into possible abuses by a private security contractor, a sinister band of corporate mercenaries and ex-military types evidently modeled on the firm Blackwater. Cal's relationship to the scandalous story is also complicated by the fact he's close to Collins' estranged wife (Robin Wright Penn).

Clearly enjoying firing off riblad zingers, Helen Mirren plays Cal's cynical editor. She insists he work on the story with the paper's Capitol Hill blogger Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), whom Cal assumes is a glorified society columnist unfamiliar with reporting hard news. Yes, he teaches her a thing or two, but Della is sharp and principled. And despite his protestations, he may be compromised ethically. Profit-pressure from the new corporate owners of the Globe threatens to skew the story even more.

Adopting a straightforward style, director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) punches up the proceedings with music cues easily anticipated, as are a few of the plot twists. The cinematography emphasizes the city's monumental architecture without relying on familiar buildings or hackneyed images. A trio of screenwriters -- Matthew Michael Carnahan (Lions for Lambs), Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton) and Billy Ray (Breach) -- is responsible for snappy dialogue and the absence of excess filler in the topical story.

Not all the tension is of the cerebral variety. There are exciting bursts of action in a hospital scene, as well as during a parking garage sequence that's a subtle nod to All the President's Men, the best journalism and politics movie ever. Journalists may take pride in the fact they're portrayed by actors of Crowe, Mirren and McAdams' caliber (especially if print journalism is on its last leg); and politicos could do worse than Affleck and Jeff Daniels, who appears in the role of a senior member of Collins' party. Add Justin Bateman to the mix as a sleazy public relations guy and you have a terrific cast.

State of Play is an ode to a way of gathering and disseminating information that may soon be obsolete. Yet at the end of the day, it doesn't read a tremendous amount into the situation or do anything radically novel with it. The idea that anyone holding elective office or serving as a bastion of the Fourth Estate can be corrupted is yesterday's, or rather perennial, news. The picture will still generate a special frisson in old media types, particularly when they watch a newspaper going to press at movie's end. 

Today, we assume that nothing any of us does, let alone politicians, can remain hidden forever: everything will come out eventually. It's just a question of how the information is spun when it does. Certain spectators will wish they had been played more by the film and some less, but State of Play is incisive enough to satisfy a significant cross-section of the viewing public.

(Released by Universal Pictures and rated "PG-13" for some violence, language including sexual references and brief drug content.)

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