State of Play

"Aren't you going to ask me how I could be so stupid?" "In a minute."

There are a number of people whose work on State of Play deserves to be singled out and praised, but one who may go overlooked elsewhere is a guy by the name of Alex Heffes. Heffes has been director Kevin MacDonald’s composer since the latter’s documentary days, and this is the highest-profile project of both of their careers. His musical score for State of Play isn’t showy or particularly hummable; it certainly isn’t grandiose. Rather, it’s omnipresent, propulsive, and insinuating. This could have been a grandstanding, self-important film, but Heffes gives it menace and ferocity.

State of Play is foremost an intelligent, adult genre film — the thriller antidote to Fast & Furious. It traffics in brainy old-school suspense, courtesy of a twisty plot that holds up under scrutiny. Watching it, I was struck by how few films these days rely on the simple and extraordinary power of What Happens Next; dumber movies rely on flash, explosions and blood, while a lot of smarter ones (co-writer Tony Gilroy’s Duplicity comes to mind) seem more concerned with subtext than story. In this sense, there’s a certain purity to State of Play: it’s about what it’s about, it cares deeply about it, and it’s exceptionally smart.

Which is not to say that the movie can’t be about two or three things at once: in this case, a murder mystery, a government conspiracy, and the decline of corporate newspaper journalism. Indeed, one of State of Play‘s biggest pleasures is that it tells its story through the eyes of a proudly old-school newspaper reporter (Russell Crowe); we tag along on his quest for the story, make the same discoveries he makes, and are astonished and frightened along with him. One of the film’s theses is that traditional journalism — what used to be known as “reporting,” and is being supplanted by “blogging” — is exciting, and boy do we believe it.

Crowe’s Cal McAffrey works for the Washington Globe — a rag bearing an uncanny resemblance to the Washington Post — and is the consummate newspaper reporter/man-about-town. He has a connection in every nook and cranny of the District of Columbia, from the police department to the local burger joint to, it turns out, the Senate. Up-and-coming Senator Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck) is Cal’s good friend and college roommate, which makes it rather awkward when Collins’ mistress is apparently murdered for nefarious, not-straightforward reasons, and the story falls into Cal’s lap. Almost accidentally, he enlists the Globe’s superstar political blogger (the word is uttered only once or twice in the film, and with contempt) and gives chase, while their hard-bitten editor (Helen Mirren), hounded by the Globe’s corporate overlords to increase readership, pushes for faster, sleazier, more superficial journalism.

State of Play manages an incisive critique of the newspaper industry while keeping the focus squarely on the labyrinthine, breathlessly exciting plot. The sole glaring flaw is in the last ten minutes, when the film pulls the rug out from under us one time too many, and puts too fine a point on a few of its thematic strands. It’s worth noting that this is a two-hour adaptation of a six-hour BBC miniseries, which probably didn’t have to conclude with a furious half-hour of non-stop climaxes as the movie does.

The labored ending aside, State of Play is a gratifyingly mature treat on the eve of another big, loud summer at the movies. At points, it’s almost an embarrassment of riches: I wonder if Kevin MacDonald felt sorry for any of his less-fortunate peers when he managed to convince the likes of Jeff Daniels and Viola Davis to pop up in bit parts. From the cast to the score to the screenplay, this is expert, world-class entertainment.

-- Eugene Novikov

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