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STATE OF PLAY(director: Kevin Macdonald; screenwriters: Matthew Michael Carnahan/Tony Gilroy/Billy Ray/based on the BBC television series created by Paul Abbott; cinematographer: Rodrigo Prieto; editor: Justine Wright; music: Alex Heffes; cast: Russell Crowe (Cal McAffrey), Ben Affleck (Stephen Collins), Rachel McAdams (Della Frye), Robin Wright Penn (Anne Collins), Jason Bateman (Dominic Foy), Jeff Daniels (Congressman George Fergus), Helen Mirren (Cameron Lynne), Sarah Lord (Mandi Brokaw), Michael Berresse (Robert Bingham), Katy Mixon (Rhonda Silver), Michael Jace (Officer Brown), Maria Thayer (Sonia Baker), Harry Lennix (Det. Donald Bell), Viola Davis (Dr. Judith Franklin); Runtime: 117; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Andrew Hauptman/Eric Fellner/Tim Bevan; Universal; 2009-USA/UK)
“A brisk old-fashioned political thriller with a modern look.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A brisk old-fashioned political thriller with a modern look set in the New World of eager-beaver online bloggers and wise ink-stained investigative reporters from the print media. It’s based on the brilliant 2003 BBC six-part miniseries created by Paul Abbott and written by Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gilroy and Billy Ray. It’s directed in a lively manner by Scottish filmmaker Kevin Macdonald (“Touching the Void”/”The Last King of Scotland”/”A Brief History of Errol Morris”), who tells us about the treachery of the ruthless, greedy and corrupt bad guys from both the corporate and political worlds. It moves so fast and seems to make sense, that it’s not until it’s wrapped up and you leave the theater that you may start thinking about all the things it failed to tell you about our new age of making big coin over the War on Terror.

The acting is superb, especially by Russell Crowe. He replaced Brad Pitt, who supposedly had some trouble with the script and took a powder. Crowe is Cal McAffrey, the slobbish chili-burger loving Old School journalist working for the Washington Globe who crosses paths once again with his college roommate, the rising star reform-minded Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck) whose committee is investigating PointCorp, a defense-contracting giant and their questionable activities and lucrative contracts with the government. On the morning of the televised hearings, a young junkie pickpocket is shot and a pizza deliveryman on a bike who witnessed the shooting is also fatally shot. Then an attractive young woman suspiciously dies in a Washington D.C. subway station, who was either pushed or jumped onto the tracks. She happens to be Sonia Baker (Maria Thayer), Collins’s research assistant and lover, someone who was working on the PointCorp investigation. With that, a tearful Collins visits Cal’s dumpy apartment asking for help. Cal had an affair with the congressman’s wife, Anne (Robin Wright Penn), when they were in school and the men now have a guarded friendship. In any case, Cal agrees to investigate Sonia’s murder and to check out the folks at PointCorp to see if they’re involved.

No matter that there are conflicts of interest, the crusading journalist Cal runs with the story and teams up with the inexperienced but cute and aggressive young political blogger for his paper, Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), who now becomes a cub reporter. The murder trail leads to the $40 billion defense corporation, who have a secret insider deal about gaining the privatized homeland security contract that they don’t want destroyed and it appears on the surface they would do anything to get that contract. As Cal double checks his facts and doesn’t rush to judgment, his clever and acerbic editor-in-chief Cameron Lynne (Helen Mirren) berates him that she wants a fast story that sells papers for her struggling paper and eggs him on to move faster telling him in no uncertain terms that “the real story is the sinking of this bloody newspaper.” The paper has just been taken over by a corporate giant, and for both editor and publisher it’s all about the bottom line and not about getting at the truth.

Surprises mount as Cal’s investigation uncovers the big stink in Washington from the defense-contractors wheeling and dealing to the majority House Whip, Congressman George Fergus (Jeff Daniels), and his underhanded involvement to the involvement of a sleazy hedonistic and cynical fixer PR man (Jason Bateman) to a number of smaller low-level players in on the take to eventually a former unstable Special Forces guy named Robert Bingham (Michael Berresse) who has been hired by a mysterious party as an assassin.

The opening and the closing scenes are electric, while the middle part is compelling as it builds its hot button political conspiracy story that leads to the climax where the newspaper story is co-written by a print journalist and an online blogger (How about that for a fantasy scene of smoking the peace pipe!). Good stuff, skullduggery and all, even if it’s a shallow undertaking and there’s nothing new under the sun over this expose except the same old political power play, corporate greed, current battle for survival of the fittest between online bloggers and print journalists, and the revelation that there’s a need for a democracy to have crusading investigative reporters who can’t be bought off.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”