Rating: Rated M (Violence and coarse language)
This film is an adaptation of the well-received 6-part television series, “State of Play”, which BBC put to air in 2003. The condensing down of the serial has resulted in a well-crafted, tight and suspenseful political thriller, that has several sub-plots; and it is very well acted, directed and scripted. Significantly, it is about modern themes and anxieties, such as the potential for newspaper journals to die, and for traditional journalism to give way to Internet blogging as the fastest way to get news to the masses. The movie is also about the short-cuts politicians and journalists take toward taking responsibility for truth, and maintaining personal integrity.
The film begins with an emotional scene involving a double homicide. Before the murders can be investigated by the police and Washington Globe crime reporter Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe), an ex-research assistant to a Republication Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck) is killed in a subway accident. Her death looks to be suicide, but isn’t. She was the mistress of Collins and her death forces Collins, who is a Presidential hopeful, to admit that he had an affair with her. He loses his credibility and public respect at a critical point in his chairmanship of a Congressional Committee on defence spending, involving Point Corp, a private military contractor for security. Point Corp happens to be making enormous profit from the US war effort on terrorism, and from the privatisation of domestic and international security operations. Collins is a friend of McAffrey, and when the latter probes deeper, he discovers a link between the three killings that threatens trust in the power structure of the US Government.
There are three major themes that characterize this movie. The first is the theme of the independence of journalism. The second deals with pressures to compromise truth not only through the media, but also through politicians, and the way they live out their ambitions. The third theme is the hidden control of financial power by large corporations. The film works brilliantly at the first level, intelligently at the second, and a little erratically on the third. The movie never sustains the level of paranoia achieved by films such as “Parallax View”; and the story of Point Corp overshadows at times the drama going on at the other two levels.
In the film, the three themes are interwoven tightly. Cal McAffrey wants to protect his Congressman friend, but also get at the truth. Distracting Cal in his task is a young blogger, Della Frye (Rachael McAdams), whom he takes on board to help in the case. They each learn from the other. Della realises that blogging can’t access the complete truth; her methods are too superficial. McAffrey also realises that crime reporting often pushes a person into compromising how truth is communicated, no matter how it is reported. The movie argues effectively that the internet is no substitute for traditional journalism based on proper sources, but in the movie truth and honesty come under attack on many different fronts. Collins behaves corruptly. The affair of McAffrey with Collins’ wife (Robin Wright Penn) drives home the point that most of the key characters in this movie are engaging in choices that have led them to behave immorally. If the message of the movie is about making the best choice available, then the film is also about corruption mixed with sleaze; and McAffrey’s morality is as unstable as that of anyone else. Personal integrity and truth are compromised at many levels in this film.
Russell Crowe plays the craggy, bushy and sloppily dressed reporter, who sees his task as determining the truth, with wonderful subtlety. McAdams works well with Crowe and their edgy relationship turns to one of mutual trust as they try to unravel what is happening. Helen Mirren plays the role of McAffrey’s Editor who sees the primary role of journalism as the selling of stories; but despite great one-liners, she is too British for the part. Michael Berresse plays the psychopathic assassin.
With thrillers of this kind there is nearly always the proverbial twist at the end. It arrives in this movie at the end, and it is appropriately unsettling. The film is too complex for one to thread its different sub-plots into a coherent whole. Mostly, however, it keeps you guessing, important messages lie within it (and some of them are featured in the brilliant final credits), and it entertains very intelligently.
Universal Pictures Out May 28th. 2009
Peter W. Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.