BOOKS AND ARTS APRIL 17, 2009
The most memorable element of the Russell Crowe journo-thriller State of Play may be its score, and not in a good way. Composer Alex Heffes once explained that he prefers to score a film around the dialogue, rather than through it, which seems to be a modest way of saying that he doesn’t want his music to be upstaged by all that dull talk talk talk. So every time a performer closes his mouth for the length of a four-count, Heffes fills the aural space to the brim with throbbing beats and jangling strings that declare something suspenseful is going on right now! It’s almost as if he set out to update the showy musical spikes so popular in mid-century film (“You’ll do as I say, if you ever want to see your sweetheart alive”--dun-dun-dun), and the effect is no less displacing. Rather than bring you into the action unfolding on the screen, it pushes you out, an advertisement of theatricality.
It does, however, keep State of Play from being entirely forgettable, at least for as long as it takes to gather up one’s outerwear and exit the theater. Directed by Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland), it is the fourth consecutive Crowe film--on the heels of 3:10 to Yuma, American Gangster, and Body of Lies--to feel genre-generic, the careful reassembly of cinematic components we’ve seen countless times before. The cast, which also includes Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams, Helen Mirren, Robin Wright Penn, and Jason Bateman, is strong (with one notable exception), and the production has the sheen of superior craftsmanship. But the whole enterprise seems somehow empty, six characters in search of a rationale.
Based on the terrific six-part BBC miniseries of the same name, Macdonald’s film follows its contours closely, though at three times the pace and transposed some 3,600 miles westward to Washington, DC. A pretty congressional researcher (Maria Thayer) tumbles fatally onto the Metro tracks on the same day that a young pickpocket (LaDell Preston) is murdered execution-style on the street. As grizzled “Washington Globe” reporter Cal McAffrey (Crowe) and Capitol Hill blogger Della Frye (McAdams) soon discover, the two deaths are connected not only with one another but also with rising-star Congressman Stephen Collins (Affleck), who was both the researcher’s boss and her lover. Closing the loop is the fact that Cal and Stephen are old college roommates and both have slept with Collins’s wife Anne (Wright Penn). It will (I hope) surprise no one to learn that the researcher’s death was neither accident nor suicide, and that it is apparently connected to a shadowy conspiracy trying to exert its diabolical will upon the congressman.
As if bashful of its London roots, State of Play name-drops its adopted Washington milieu with an enthusiasm that would embarrass the most shameless cocktail-party networker: Ben’s Chili Bowl, the Kennedy Center, Chinatown’s Friendship Arch, the Scottish Rite Temple, the Americana Hotel in Crystal City--okay, I was actually tickled by that last one, as were most at the DC-area screening I attended. I did find odd, however, the filmmakers’ evident belief that leasing office space at the Watergate building is a conclusive sign of nefarious intent.
The nod to the Watergate is just one of the ways State of Play unwisely begs to be compared to All The President’s Men. Journalistic odd couple Cal and Della bicker amiably on their way to becoming the most symbiotic DC reporting duo this side of Woodstein, and Mirren aspires to Bradleehood as their hard-nosed editor (a role played to perfection by Bill Nighy in the miniseries). But even as it extols the craft of journalism, Macdonald’s film evinces little comprehension of it. A particular low point is the moment when Mirren’s character demands of her ace--who, in addition to being close friends with the subject of his reporting, is actually letting him stay in his apartment--“Cal, any conflict of interest here?”
There are intermittent pleasures to be found, thanks mostly to nice performances by Crowe (who continues to find nuance even in underwritten parts), Mirren, and Bateman, whose scenes at the Americana Hotel are the best of the film. (His line “Everybody wants a book deal,” may contain more Washington wisdom than the rest of the film combined.) Affleck, by contrast, seems to believe that looking the part of an ambitious young pol obviates any need that he play it. His performance is a study in inertness, a rocky shoal around which the other actors navigate at their own peril. Given the relative merits of his recent work in front of the camera and behind it (where he directed the exceptional Gone Baby Gone), it may be time for Affleck to give deeper thought to his career trajectory.
The fundamental mistake of State of Play, however, was the decision to make it at all. The film’s many screenwriters (Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gilroy, and Billy Ray are credited, but Peter Morgan contributed rewrites as well) seem to have approached the BBC miniseries as a problem to be solved: How can a discursive, character-driven, six-hour drama be pared down to 120 minutes? The unsurprising answer is by excising the interpersonal ambiguities, smaller roles, and journalistic minutiae that made the original appealing in the first place. The BBC show’s strength was not the creakily conspiratorial plot that Macdonald’s film faithfully reproduces, but the casual details and intimate observations that accompanied its unfurling. Envision a season of “The Wire” squeezed down to feature-film length, and you will have some idea of Macdonald’s ill-advised accomplishment.
Indeed, by focusing on plot rather than character, Macdonald and his collaborators have unwittingly emphasized perhaps the greatest weakness of the original, an out-of-left-field twist that radically reorients the story in its final act. In the miniseries, which concerned itself vaguely with a political plot undertaken by oil companies, this reversal was expressed primarily in personal terms--after all, who really cares whether or not the oil barons get what they want? But Macdonald et al. juice up their film’s political import in the prevailing fashion, converting their villains into private security interests plotting to take over Homeland Security. (“These soldiers are answerable to no one,” one character warns ominously.) Macdonald’s journalists, in other words, aren’t merely on a quest for truth, but on a mission to forestall tyranny--and, without giving anything away, that mission does not conclude in the manner they imagine it will. As a result, a film that has spent an hour and forty-five minutes puffing itself into a battle for the Soul of American Democracy feebly hisses its way to a deflated conclusion. At least, as best I can recall.
Christopher Orr is a senior editor of The New Republic.