Sunday, April 19, 2009

State of Play

Film Review by Kam Williams

Headline: Crowe and Mirren Co-Star in Action-Oriented, Political Potboiler

Since Barack Obama has decided to take the high road by not holding any members of the outgoing Bush administration accountable for war profiteering via no-bid contracts, for torturing terror suspects in violation of the Geneva Conventions, for outing a CIA agent or for other high crimes and misdemeanors, shouldn’t Hollywood be prepared to forgive all those transgressions, too? This is the question likely to cross your mind while watching State of Play, a flick with a fairly transparent, political agenda posing as an edge-of-your-seat thriller. The movie is basically a thinly-veiled indictment of elected officials who put their services up for sale to the lobbyists offering the biggest bribes.
At first blush, the plot sounds like a rehash of the Chandra Levy affair, the case of the intern murdered while she happened to be the mistress of married, Democratic Congressman Gary Condit. For here, we have Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck) who has been secretly carrying on a clandestine affair with a young assistant named Sonia Baker (Maria Thayer).
The film unfolds in spectacular fashion with a couple of slayings on the streets of the Capital by a cold-blooded assassin (Michael Berresse) wielding a pistol outfitted with a silencer. Right on the heels of these killings, Sonia dies in the subway under mysterious circumstances which the coroner rules a suicide in a suspicious rush to judgment.
For some reason, a Washington Post-like newspaper called the Globe takes more of an interest in solving the whodunit than the police, and they certainly seem to have better sources and more resources at their disposal, which makes no sense. Anyhow, editor-in-chief Cameron Lynne assigns seasoned veteran Cal McAffrey and cub reporter Della Frye (Rachel McAdams) to head the investigation.
What na├»ve Della doesn’t know is that her partner was Congressman Collins’ roommate in college. What’s more, the two are still best friends, and Cal might be double-crossing his buddy by sleeping with his estranged wife, Anne (Robin Wright Penn). A big hint being in this regard arrives when Cal ruefully “Sex is the best way to ruin a friendship.” Well, at the very least, she’s been crying on his shoulder.
When Stephen is forced to own up to the illicit liaison with the late Sonia, he suddenly needs his spouse to “stand by her man” at every available photo-op. Of course, she’s reluctant, since she’s already over him and would rather be spending her free time with Cal.
Cal, however, is hot on the trail of the man he suspects to be behind all three deaths. For the deeper he digs, the rough and tumble reporter uncovers evidence that these were murders for hire to cover-up the connection of a company called Pointcorp’s efforts to get a monopoly on the impending $40 billion privatization of the Homeland Security industry.
If you haven’t noticed by now, a lot gets compacted when you attempt to distill the events contained in a BBC miniseries down to two-hours, which is what we have with State of Play, a conveniently-incestuous screen adaptation which crams in more than you probably care to chew cinematically. That being said, director Kevin MacDonald (The Last King of Scotland) definitely has a flair for the dramatic and a knack for keeping his audience perched on the edge of its collective seat, even if he tends to rely as much on distracting red herrings as on relevant plot developments to achieve that cattle-prod, over-stimulation effect.
As for the cast, Aussie Russell Crowe and Brit Helen Mirren steal the show, with Robin Wright Penn, Rachel McAdams, Harry Lennix, Jason Bateman, Viola Davis and Jeff Daniels turning in some decent support work. Only Ben Affleck hurts the production with another one of his trademark wooden performances which make it impossible to figure out what his character is thinking or feeling.
A heck of a roller coaster ride, even if the rabbit-out-of-the-hat resolution is likely to leave you feeling cheated. Sometimes, getting there is all the fun.

Very Good (3 stars)
Rated PG-13 for violence, profanity, sexual references and brief drug use.
Running time: 127 minutes
Studio: Universal Pictures

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