On DVD: State of Play

Most investigative thrillers focus on detectives digging around for the answers, but “State of Play” opts to center around the desperate, miserable and dying newspaper industry. Simply put, the forces and pressures motivating a reporter are not like that on a detective, which makes for a much more unique plot with characters an audience can view as more like themselves. A detective who figures out whodunit is doing his/her job — a journalist who puts the pieces together is a small-time hero.

Russell Crowe stars in one of his more unique roles as a seasoned investigative reporter named Cal McAffrey. Crowe somehow more easily portrays Americans than any Australian or British actor working in Hollywood and he brings a light-hearted spirit to his serious role. His character finds himself in a dangerous place when his personal friendships with a congressman and his wife (Ben Affleck, Robin Wright Penn) come at odds with his job when news breaks that the congressman was having an affair with a girl who recently died in a DC subway accident. McAffrey first tries to protect his friend, but when he sees trends leading to conspiracy, his professional instincts kick in.

“Play” brags a diverse but killer cast. Crowe is the dependable star vehicle, Affleck the ultra- popular movie star who has been scarce lately and Rachel McAdams makes a triumphant return to the screen after a couple years off as a young blogger who assists Crowe. Also appearing in the film are Helen Mirren as the editor, Jeff Daniels as another politician and even Jason Bateman makes a cameo. All of them are talented and have proved so in many different genres, but never have they been together to make a thriller.

It’s also the first experiment in the genre for the director, Kevin Macdonald (“The Last King of Scotland.”) Macdonald keeps this film fast and exciting, generally refusing to use a tripod but not distracting us with shaky camera-work either. He mixes in a lot of close detail shots with scene setters that tell the story at a provocative angle. There are a lot of typical thriller movie conventions used, but he makes it his own. He’s a director certainly worth keeping an eye on.

Credit must also go to an incredibly well-assembled writing team. Although based on a BBC miniseries of the same name, “State of Play” boasts “Michael Clayton” creator and penner of the Bourne series Tony Gilroy for the drama and action, “Shattered Glass” creator Billy Ray for the journalism expertise and Matthew Michael Carnahan (“Lions for Lambs,” “The Kindgom,”) for the political/military end. It’s amazing to see how that all plays together so nicely with so many reputable writers. Some of the twists might be more on the extreme side, but it’s mostly convincing and exciting the whole way through.

“State of Play” hooks you and keeps you guessing. It tries to keep the characters intimate and worth caring about while also making sure the story picks up velocity. Subplots occasionally get in the way (McAffrey’s personal connection to Wright Penn’s character among them) but you become pretty easily invested in what’s going on and are frightened when what seemed like a nice mystery suddenly gets serious. This is a thriller that is smart and quick and never blows itself out of proportion. It holds its ground and it does so with much talent.

Lastly, the film questions the necessary extent of hard-nosed reporting, but also revels in its necessity. Watergate is alluded to as a building where a couple key companies are located. The connection is purposeful — we’re supposed to see the scandal as a fictional modern re- creation of Watergate in terms of how it’s reported and uncovered. While films like “All the King’s Men” glorified the work of journalists, “Play” is too stubborn to give them full credit, bringing into the discussion the idea of selling papers and not waiting too long to get all the facts or how the Internet/blogosphere twists the news in different ways. It might not be at the front of your mind while enjoying the film, but it sets it above the overdone detective thriller.

4/5 Stars

Directed by: Kevin Macdonald
Written by: Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gilroy, Billy Ray
Starring; Russell Crowe, Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams, Helen Mirren

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