Monday, April 20, 2009
State of Play
By Elise Nakhnikian
I love a good newspaper movie. By that I mean a smart, fast-moving story with lots of moving parts, like The Paper (1994), The Sweet Smell of Success (1957), or His Girl Friday (1940). Movies that capture that odd mix of cynicism and idealism that fuels a healthy newspaper, not to mention the verbal jousting, the friendly and not-so-friendly competition, and the sense that getting the story right really matters.
But those movies have something else in common: The most recent one is 15 years old. When this century’s 24-hour news cycle ended the reign of newsprint, newspaper movies became old news— and that’s one of the problems with State of Play.
The filmmakers try hard to make their story relevant. They pair Cal (Russell Crowe), the old-school reporter on the print side of a powerful Washington, D.C. newspaper, with Della (Rachel McAdams), a young woman who blogs for the paper, so the two can exchange some superficial banter about old media vs. new. They also link the death Cal and Della are investigating to a private military contractor whose goal is “the privatization of homeland security.” But you’ve seen everything here done before – and probably better.
Director Kevin MacDonald knows how to make a story compelling. Touching the Void, his 2003 documentary about two mountain climbers who narrowly avoid death in the Peruvian Andes, made skillful use of recreations to dramatize the survivors’ stories, and The Last King of Scotland, a fictionalized tale about Idi Amin, was suffused with a mounting sense of dread. But he’s lost his mojo here.
The score is so intrusive and ineffective that Ben Affleck joked about when he plugged the movie on The Daily Show. The dialogue feels recycled, and the closest we get to character development is watching scruffy, puffy Cal scarf down junk food while cranking up an Irish drinking song in his old Saab.
Maybe because it’s based on a British miniseries with more time to spin the story, the movie is stuffed with underdeveloped plot twists. Not only is Cal reporting on the death of a congressman’s assistant, but he’s protecting the congressman, Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), who happens to be an old roommate. What’s more, Cal once slept with Collins’ wife, and Collins was having an affair with the dead assistant. Then there are killings related to the case, that defense contractor, and dirty dealings as Congress caters to corporate interests.
Rather than being pulled into the action as Cal and Della race to piece it all together, I just wanted to get out of the way while the kitchen sink hurtled past.