Rating: 4.5 Pulses
Starring: Russell Crowe, Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams, Hellen Mirren, Robin Wright Penn
Directed by Kevin MacDonald
The key to a successful political thriller has always been character. It is not enough to simply ask “who did it?” We, as audiences, find much more relevance and sympathy in asking “what kind of people are behind this, why did they do it, and in turn, what responsibility now falls upon us?”
Director Kevin MacDonald (The Last King of Scotland) marks his second wide-release feature with State of Play, a film adaptation of the successful BBC miniseries.
The film’s protagonist, Cal MacAffrey (Crowe), is a street-smart newspaper reporter in Washington D.C. who becomes entangled with several murder cases that appear to be unrelated. His experience and intelligence motivate him to follow his instincts, which are telling him that these incidents are no accidents. Elevating his need for connecting the dots is the fact that the murder being most publicized is of the research assistant to the nation’s up-and-coming congressman, Stephen Collins (Affleck). With Collins being primed to become the face of his political party, he must turn to his old friendship with Cal for help. Along with the aid of his assistant Della (McAdams), Cal begins to uncover a conspiracy that spills secrets very carefully buried by the spin doctors and wealthy figureheads of D.C.
Far too often does a thriller come along where the cast is superb but the script lacks direction, or perhaps vice versa. Such is definitely not the case with State of Play. Crowe delivers such a comfortable and fun performance that it is hard not to be immediately pulled into the tension and intrigue of the film from his point of view. The supporting cast though is large and superb, with Affleck delivering what could arguably be his most dramatic role to date. There are times when his character seems to reflect more of his brother Casey’s acting technique than his own . . . and that’s certainly a compliment. McAdams plays off of Crowe very well and when you add in Helen Mirren as their ruthless but enjoyable editor, the chemistry often sparks in a way you might not quite imagine from such a mixture of actors.
Co-writer Tony Gilroy comes hot off the Bourne trilogy as well as his Oscar-nominated 2007 thriller Michael Clayton and he brought with him the intelligence and integrity of those films’ scripts. While State of Play does eventually stumble upon the point of being briefly predictable, it gets there only after two hours of tense character development and sharply-written plot twists. The taut direction of MacDonald is the glue of the film’s creative side as he ensures that the story continues to enthrall and make us want more while holding on to both its entertainment value and the priority of its personal motivations. Surprisingly, those are two things that so many political thrillers in Hollywood tend to forego within the first 15 minutes in favor of preaching a two-hour long political “message.” In many ways, the film is art imitating life-as-it-should-be. Journalism is on the verge of becoming synonymous with biased blogging and frivolous gossip but what separates a legitimate story from opinionated musings is the simple act of unbiased research that is then supported by the human element, not the other way around. While one can easily draw real-life allegories from a few of the film’s developments, State of Play never becomes preachy at the expense of telling a real story. When all is said and done, that’s what will leave it standing as one of the best thrillers of the year.