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State of Play is a slick and entertaining thriller based on a British miniseries from 2003. Good acting highlights a story almost too complicated to be told in just over two hours, a factor that may have led to lower than expected box office returns. Yet Russell Crowe, Rachel McAdams and Ben Affleck's solid work helps us concentrate on the twists and turns in a mystery that's much more involved than might first appear.
Representative Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck) is shaken when Sonia Baker (Maria Thayer), his main researcher in his investigation of security consultants PointCorp, is killed in the subway. Media speculation forces the truth out into the open: Stephen was having an affair with the young woman, and fears that she may have been murdered to scare him away from the PointCorp hearings. With the help of fledgling writer Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), star reporter Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe), soon links Sonia's death to the murder of a drug addict. The addict had a stolen briefcase containing photos of Sonia and Stephen. A college friend of Collins, Cal would like to prove that assassins in the pay of PointCorp are behind the killing.
With a professional killer still on the loose, Cal and Della race to tie up loose ends. Cal must approach Stephen's irate wife Anne (Robin Wright Penn), who once had an affair with Cal. A sleazy publicist (Jason Bateman) points Cal's investigation at a smug Congressman, George Fergus (Jeff Daniels). Cal's editor Cameron Lynne (Helen Mirren) is furious that Cal is not exploiting the scandalous side of the story, while Detective Bell (Harry Lennix) is upset that he's not sharing key information with the police.
This synopsis doesn't begin to touch the complexity of State of Play, one of those stories where it's unwise to presume anything not directly pictured on screen. Director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) puts together fine dramatic scenes, avoiding bravura camera work and letting his excellent settings provide the style. The movie is tense and eventful without resorting to injections of unnecessary action or hyping individual moments. The best suspense scene simply has the killer tracking Cal in a parking structure.
Looking like a longhaired, shaggy bear, Russell Crowe's reporter hero charms us with his positive, motivated attitude; no moody scene-chewing here. Rachel McAdams is properly green as the tyro newspaperwoman who normally works on an online blog. Clever but natural dialogue enlivens their characters greatly, hinting at but not insisting on a developing attraction. It's as it should be, as there's little room in this tale to do much more than concentrate on character twists and plot complications. Tony Gilroy appears on the credits as one of the writers, and we immediately associate the film's excellent dialogue with his previous work on Duplicity and Michael Clayton.
Ben Affleck once again impresses with a fine performance. Affleck's work in Hollywoodland reversed this viewer's negative opinion of his acting ability; his ambitious politician is a fine construction of human inconsistencies. Stephen Collins feels 'real' in most every scene, whether suspicious of Cal's attempts to help him or facing up to his hostile, humiliated wife.
Bill Nighy played the standard irascible newspaper editor in the original miniseries and Helen Mirren does the honors here. She's underused in a functional and limited part but gives it the expected touch of class. Entertaining twists and turns make State of Play a much better than average thriller.
If there's something to complain about with State of Play, it's the story's cavalier use of a topical issue, in this case the very Blackwater-like PointCorp. Stephen Collins makes the case that PointCorp's mercenaries are receiving billions of dollars to expand activities on U.S. soil, raising the threat of a massive domestic army answerable only to "the private sector". The implication is that a corporate cabal will soon be capable of seizing control whenever it wishes. State of Play develops this idea only so far .... (see Spoiler footnote 1)
Universal's Blu-ray of State of Play is a fine encoding of a handsome new production, the kind that carries dozens of CGI credits for special effects that are virtually undetectable. Picture and sound are as clean as one could hope for.
The standard extras are a pair of redundant deleted scenes and a chatty making-of featurette that tells us how perfectly the cast came together. We agree on the quality of the ensemble but State of Play is well known as a project that went through multiple director and actor changes due to delays. We are surprised to hear that 60% of this Washington-based film was actually shot in Los Angeles. One of Universal's "U-Control" PIP extras is an informational piece on the film's attractive D.C. locations.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
State of Play Blu-ray rates:
1. (Big Spoiler, be warned) State of Play develops this idea only so far; the anti-Blackwater statement is just a tease that leaves the criticism hanging. (Ultimate Spoiler) PointCorp is never cleared outright, but any reading of the plot pretty much exonerates the company of direct involvement in murder. The inference is that congressmen investigating private security contractors (indeed an alarming and dangerous development in modern warfare) are troublemakers looking for scapegoats for their own crimes.
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2009 Savant Wish List. T'was Ever Thus.