Politics and journalism make terrific bedfellows, and if you add murder and conspiracy to the mix, you've got all the ingredients for a combustible cinematic brew. 'State of Play' may not explode with as much force as some might like, but this slow-burn, intelligent thriller keeps the brain engaged with a complex, tightly-knit yarn and the senses stimulated with top-notch production values and riveting performances by a high-voltage cast. Though Kevin Macdonald's film can't compete with 'All the President's Men,' it's still a credit to its class and one of the better popcorn mysteries of the past year.
Remember the Gary Condit/Chandra Levy scandal that rocked Washington several years back? Bright young intern found brutally killed in a D.C. park, and soon after romantically linked to a middle-aged, married congressman who confessed to the affair but denied any criminal involvement? It was quite a story and ended up ruining Condit's political career, even though he was never formally charged with anything except boneheaded judgment. 'State of Play' jumps all over this juicy premise, yet clouds the waters with added intrigue worthy of the TV series '24' and plenty of topical references to Iraq and Afghanistan.
When dashing U.S. Representative Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck) announces at a congressional hearing that his research assistant, Sonia Baker (Maria Thayer), has been found dead in the D.C. metro, everyone – including intrepid Washington Globe reporter and Collins' former college roommate, Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) – assumes she committed suicide. Collins, however, suspects foul play, and fears PointCorp, the company his office has been investigating as part of a defense department military outsourcing probe, may be involved. Like a salivating pit bull, Cal sinks his teeth into this incendiary nugget. Cub reporter Della Frye (Rachel McAdams) jumps in to help, and before you can say Woodward and Bernstein, the pair begins digging into what soon becomes a bombshell story. Yet will Cal allow his intimacy with Collins to slant his journalistic perspective and compromise his principles? And does Collins, like most ambitious politicians, know more than he's telling?
Based on a wildly popular and critically acclaimed BBC miniseries, 'State of Play' is packed with thought-provoking and relevant themes. Veteran screenwriter Tony Gilroy (along with Matthew Michael Carnahan and Billy Ray) expertly outlines the codependent relationship between cagey government officials and a hungry press under constant deadline pressure. In addition, he taps into corporate conspiracy (which he examined in 'Michael Clayton') and the shocking lengths a company may go to in order to further its agenda and protect its political clout. The film also questions the sanctity of journalistic ethics and cogently depicts the challenging economic and competitive climate facing today's newspapers, which wage an uphill battle against both electronic media and hardline corporate parents.
It's actually this last angle of 'State of Play' that intrigued me most. As a journalism junkie, I'm fascinated by the inner workings of a bustling metropolitan daily, and even though the film often glosses over the drudgery and frustration that pervade the business (aspects David Fincher explored so well in 'Zodiac'), it crisply captures the cynicism, cockiness, and adrenaline-fueled energy of the newsroom organism. And just as our government must deal with big companies trying to wield their influence on Capitol Hill, financially-strapped newspapers must endure more editorial meddling by corporate suits than ever before, as well as intense pressure to turn a profit. The Globe's tough, impassioned editor (undoubtedly modeled on legendary Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham and played with salty fervor by the ever regal, always brilliant Helen Mirren) presents this exasperating master-and-slave relationship well, and the whole subplot gives the film an extra layer of texture.
Macdonald is no stranger to political thrillers, having helmed 'The Last King of Scotland' back in 2006, but it's his experience as an acclaimed documentarian that really helps him here. 'State of Play' is a no-nonsense picture that relies on its story's nuts and bolts to propel it forward, and the director maintains its integrity throughout. Rapt attention is mandatory to follow the various narrative threads, and though twists and turns abound, they're subtly presented and rooted within the plot's stringent parameters. The movie still gets a bit bogged down during its middle section, losing some of its steam and tautness, but Macdonald doesn't take his foot off the gas for long.
Crowe, as usual, fully embodies his character, and his unkempt, tubby appearance and sloppy habits nicely complement his old-school reporter. McAdams impresses, too, as the wide-eyed blogger and symbol of "new" journalism who earns her stripes as Cal's gal Friday. The two develop a warm, professional rapport, and thankfully no hint of romance mucks it up. Smartly abandoning hunky leading man roles in favor of smaller, choicer parts in ensemble casts, Affleck shows some excellent range and sensitivity, while Robin Wright Penn is tender and affecting as his long-suffering wife. Terrific supporting work from Jeff Daniels as an arrogant senior congressman and especially Jason Bateman as a sleazy wheeler-dealer further fuel the film's engine.
Macdonald wins my vote as one of the best directors working today, and though 'State of Play' may never be regarded as one of his defining works, it's nevertheless a smart, absorbing, multi-faceted film that's sure to enthrall almost any audience.
'State of Play' arrives on Blu-ray sporting a high quality 1080p/VC-1 transfer that juggles different shooting styles and film stock without any jarring transitions. Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto used both anamorphic and digital cameras during production, and alternated between handheld and stationary methods depending upon which character was in the frame. (Crowe's grungy journalist often was photographed with the jumpy anamorphic camera, while Affleck's slick politician received the crisper, more glamorous digital treatment.) Differences between the two are barely noticeable – although the handheld sequences become tiresome over time – due to excellent contrast, vibrant colors, and rich black levels, all of which lend the image marvelous depth and presence.
Depending on the camera used, grain levels fluctuate, but they never distract. Most of the time, a faint smattering of texture enhances the picture quality and adds welcome dimension to many scenes. Though the picture rarely jumps out and grabs the viewer, lines are well defined, background objects stand out (it's amazing how many elements can be discerned in the cluttered cubicles of various reporters), and even scenes shot in low light look solid and clear. Close-ups are terrific; hair and facial features possess striking details, from Crowe's scraggly mane to Affleck's faint stubble, and the transfer also flatters the regal Mirren, fresh-faced McAdams, and still stunning Robin Wright Penn. Fleshtones are spot-on, with the actors' various complexions all appearing natural and lifelike, and the gritty exteriors of lower-income Washington neighborhoods thrust us into the thick of the action. Best of all, no banding, digital noise, or other anomalies disrupt this smooth, well-balanced presentation.
The DTS-HD Master Audio track rivals the video, thanks to surprisingly dynamic sound that adds a wealth of nuance to this largely dialogue-driven film. Subtle ambience – from the din of activity in the cavernous newsroom to the urban street noise of bustling D.C. – nicely envelops, while distinct stereo separation across the front channels makes the action feel more immediate. Accents like gunfire, screeching tires, and the rapid fluttering of news camera shutters are palpably crisp, and dialogue, even when muttered under one's breath, comes across clearly. Bass frequencies are especially good, supplying welcome rumbles several times throughout the course of the film.
Music takes a back seat, but the somber score sounds warm and full bodied. Balance is also properly modulated, so all the elements fit snugly into the mix. Rarely does a film of this sort make one prick up their ears, but Universal has done an excellent job maximizing the sonic components of 'State of Play.'
Not too much in the way of standard extras, especially for such a star-studded, big money film. Thankfully, though, Universal makes up for the skimpy offerings in the HD exclusives (see below).
'State of Play' is one of the year's most satisfying thrillers, a cerebral mix of political skullduggery, ethical queries, and expert storytelling presented with style and grit. Terrific performances across the board raise the stakes, while a striking transfer, solid audio, and some nifty supplements loft this disc into the recommended realm.
All disc reviews at High-Def DVD Digest are completed using the best consumer HD home theater products currently on the market. More about our gear.