Saturday April 18, 2009
Review: “State of Play” (2009)
Old old old. Everything about this movie feels old.
Its heroes are newspaper reporters, or at least a grizzled old newspaper reporter, Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe), and a svelte blogger, Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), and of course these two, initially at odds, have to work together to break the story, which is still, for some reason, and despite the obvious online presence, “on deadline,” as if print were the only way to break the thing. Old tropes die hard.
The paper is the Washington Post-like Washington Globe, and it’s run by the Katherine Graham-like Cameron Lynne (Helen Mirren), but I can’t remember if she’s supposed to be the publisher or the editor. If the latter, where are her editors? Worse, where are her values? At one point she says she’s going to run a story that’s not finished (so much for the old “two sources” rule) and the next day she’s refusing to run a piece that sheds light on the biggest, juiciest story of the year, because the higher-ups at MediaCorp, which apparently recently bought the Globe, and who have no on-site representative, told her so. This little side-plot is supposed to represent another example of corporate villainy — those awful conglomerates buying up our First Amendment sources! — but that, too, is an old trope. The new trope is that no one’s buying them. They’re just dying.
The film’s villains, meanwhile, are the Blackwater-like PointCorp, a private company making billions off our wars and being investigated by young Pennsylvania congressman, and Gulf War veteran, Rep. Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck). Again: feels old. Feels Bush era.
Of course if this were the only problem with “State of Play,” it might not be bad. But it’s bad.
The movie begins, in a manner reminiscent of the superior “Enemy of State,” with a scared but speedy black man racing through the streets of D.C. Eventually he’s shot and killed by someone who knows how to shoot and kill, who then shoots a passing, bike-riding, pizza-delivery guy who saw too much. The slovenly, junk-food-eating Cal pursues the story.
Meanwhile a young redhead waits for her train at the D.C. Metro. Is someone following her? Has he pushed her under the train? Yes and yes.
Turns out she’s Sonia Baker (Maria Thayer), the chief investigator on the committee run by Rep. Collins looking into PointCorp. When the congressman announces her death at a hearing, he breaks down, and the press, and the blogosphere, including the Globe’s Della, have a field day. Were the two having an affair? Did she commit suicide because of him? Della then tries to get a quote out of Cal, because he and the Rep. were, of course, college roommates.
That evening the congressman visits the reporter — “You’re the only friend I’ve got,” he says — and the reporter acts like a PR rep. He’s less interested in the facts of the story than in ways to revive the congressman’s career. Then he gives Della the story. Of course he can’t write it himself — conflict of interest — but why feed the facts to a blogger for whom he has contempt? Why not another grizzled reporter?
There’s more, of course. The congressman was having an affair with Sonia. But then Cal was having an affair with the congressman’s wife, Anne (Robin Penn Wright), who is able to meet Cal at a nice D.C. restaurant, unpursued by paparazzi, the night after Sonia’s death. Neat trick. This second affair adds almost nothing to the story but detracts from it a great deal. Poor Robin Penn Wright.
The black guy/pizza guy killings? Turns out they’re linked to the Sonia Baker killing.
Sonia? Turns out she was initially working undercover for PointCorp. Until the affair. Then she turned.
So did PointCorp kill her and make it look like a suicide to besmirch, and quiet, Rep. Collins? And how did Sonia wind up on his staff anyway? Could it have something to do with Collins’ friend, the more senior, and more religious, Rep. George Fergus (Jeff Daniels)?
Reveals keep coming. Then at the end there’s a final reveal.
Know what would make a great reveal? No reveal. Just saying.
The movie is based upon a BBC miniseries and feels exactly like a soapy miniseries crammed into two-plus hours. New technologies are mentioned but they don’t alter the investigation the way that, say, cellphones altered (read: jumpstarted) the chase in “Casino Royale.” Here, they’re simply grafted onto old technologies. We get a montage, for example, of Della getting doors slammed in her face. It’s supposed to represent Della’s progress from blogger to reporter — she’s getting the Woodward and Bernstein treatment! — but the door-slamming doesn’t feel tied to anything important. Hell, every meeting between reporter and source in this thing is face-to-face. Because it’s more “dramatic” that way? Look, if you’re going to steal from “All the President’s Men,” why not have Stella work the phones the way that Woodward (Redford) worked the phones? That was plenty dramatic. Then ask yourself this. Can you update it? Can you quicken it? Can you tie it to something important?
Parts of the movie work. I like the location shooting. I like Cal’s visit to Ben’s Chili Bowl, a D.C. landmark, and the handmade sign listing the people who can eat there for free: Bill Cosby...and nobody else. Crowe, as always, is good, but nobody else is given anything. All the female roles are thankless, while Affleck, so perfectly sad as George Reeves in “Hollywoodland,” feels stiff and unresponsive again, while his Philadelphia accent should give some slight redemption to Kevin Costner’s British accent in “Robin Hood.”
Near the end, in one of the film’s many lurches toward relevance, Globe publisher Lynne suddenly shouts to her reporters, “The real story is the sinking of this bloody newspaper!”
She’s right. Too bad the filmmakers didn’t listen to her.