State of Play is an investigatory drama about reporters doing the sorts of things cinematic journalism inevitably entails – unravelling high profile sex scandals, busting shady politicians, banging together apocalyptic headlines, following leads into dark underground car parks etcetera etcetera – and it’s set in those oxygen-draining, paper-producing days at the beginning of the end of traditional print media, which is kind of, well, now. A few references to declining newspaper sales and a splash of internet jargon – the newspaper’s young upstart is a blogger, too – provide a hint of contemporariness in an otherwise old-fashioned film.
State of Play’s screenplay, which was adapted from a six hour British mini-series, has a proudly by-the-numbers feel to it, recycling previously recycled narrative recyclables and stapling the remnants together with a passion for stereotypes in all their dramatically convenient glory. Russell Crowe is the newspaper’s no-guff hotshot resident writer (we shall call him, say, Bernard Keane), Rachel McAdams is the cub reporter with some lessons to learn (Crikey Intern), Helen Mirren is the dry, acerbic deadline-obsessed editor (that’s you JG) and then there are the politicians embroiled in scandal: Ben Affleck is the charismatic one, in a spine-shivering, canoeing down the river Styx kind of way (Christopher Pyne?) and Jeff Daniels is the crooked, ultra-right, I’m a conservative and you’re a lousy beatnik type (George Brandis).
The script is littered with dramatic conveniences and familiar setups lifted right out of This Time It’s Personal 101: the hotshot and the upstart must work together to break a big case; the hotshot and the politician are friends from way back (something we don’t know about, BK?); the hotshot and the politician’s wife (Robin Wright Penn, very under-used) have a sexual history together and it goes on like that. Audiences can handle a few of these dramatically convenient dynamics without too much damage done to narrative plausibility, but State of Play asks us to accept too many and the story, to put it mildly, has credibility issues. There is a heavy focus on the character’s six-degrees of separation and their relation to key components of the story, but not enough on the story itself, which kicks off with two deaths – a petty thief is capped in an alley and a Congressman’s assistant falls in front of a subway – which are apparently unrelated. Of course they aint, and star reporter Cal McAffrey (Crowe) will make the connection with assistance from the perky fledgling (Rachel McAdams).
The clock is ticking, deadlines loom, a yada yada, but despite this the plot plods along at a leisurely pace – more waddle than white knuckle – and director Kevin Macdonald (The King of Scotland) conveys little sense of edginess or urgency. He uses handheld cameras to help install a bit of grit, but the moviemaking industry is so short on tripods these days that the novelty has well and truly worn off and nobody pays much attention anymore to the bobbing, lingering qualities of handheld photography, which not too long ago were considered ballsy and unconventional. Crowe and Affleck are determined to wrangle some tension out of the script, and the film is generally well acted, but the interpersonal relationships are so ho-hum it’s tough for the performers to make an impact.
State of Play feels under-plotted, which is bad news for a political thriller/investigatory drama and odd given the script’s roots in TV mini-series. The characters follow tenuous leads and red herrings – a grotty girl who lives in the sewer and pilfers suitcases? Cammon! – and rushed revelations are crammed in, i.e. a character looks at a photograph and recognises a tattoo from that bad man he saw in the car park. The film plays like a watered down All the President’s Men, and, like the newspaper industry, it feels very old hat.
State of Play’s Australian theatrical release: May 28, 2009.