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State of Play (2009)

WARNING: SPOILERS

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 harder than old newspapers.

The paper here 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 reality 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...

  • the redhead is Sonia Baker (Maria Thayer), the chief investigator on the committee run by Rep. Collins, looking into PointCorp.
  • she was having an affair with Rep. Collins.
  • Rep. Collins and Cal were college roommates.
  • Cal was having an affair with Rep. Collins’ wife.
  • the death of Sonia, and the black guy/pizza-delivery guy killings, are linked. Horribly, inextricably, idiotically linked.

Reveals keep coming. At the end there’s a final reveal that turns everything on its head.

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, now working with Cal, and getting doors slammed in her face. It’s supposed to represent her progress from blogger to reporter — she’s getting the Woodward and Bernstein treatment! — but the door-slamming doesn’t feel tied to anything important. 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 Della work the phones the way that Bob Woodward (Robert 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?

I like the location shooting. I like Cal’s visit to Ben’s Chili Bowl, a D.C. landmark, and the handmade sign of 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 blood newspaper!”

Too bad the filmmakers didn’t listen to her.

—April 18, 2009

© 2009 Erik Lundegaard