Politicians and journalists might not see eye to eye in the real world, but the two go together brilliantly in Kevin Macdonald’s (The Last King of Scotland) State of Play, making for one of the most captivating political thrillers of the past decade. With a stellar cast and an devilishly clever screenplay, State of Play defies the norm and manages to live up to the high precedence set by the acclaimed BBC mini-series of the same name. Simply put, it’s Michael Clayton from the media’s perspective, delving into the juicy world of journalistic pulp to be even more engaging than the aforementioned film. Clayton’s director/writer Tony Gilroy won’t mind me saying as such given he co-wrote State of Play, continuing to prove he’s the master corporate scandals on screen. Whilst the film does partially lose its edge after one too many plot twists, its magnetic characters and superb storytelling easily buries such flaws under a headline of absolute praise.
After Brad Pitt supposedly pulled out due to issues with the script, a more gruff looking Russell Crowe stars as Cal McCaffrey, a senior reporter for the fictional Washington Globe newspaper. Cal’s best friend is Congressman Steven Collins (Ben Affleck), who is leading the investigation into the questionable operations of the private military corporation PointCorp. When Steven’s lead researcher Sonya dies by an apparent suicide, his overly teary response in front of Congress sparks claims that he was having an affair with her. With no one else to turn to, Steven turns to Cal in a hope to set the record straight, claiming that Sonya wasn’t suicidal. Seeing a potential story that will take the heat off of Steven, Cal starts to investigate the circumstances of her death. With the help of newbie reporter Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), the two begin to piece together a giant political scandal that those behind will stop at nothing to keep a secret.
The film doubles as a lesson in journalistic integrity, where an ‘old-school’ Cal teaches blogger Della his traditional wisdom; from not jumping on a story if you’re one the edge of uncovering something huge to the obvious one of always having a pen handy. For a blogger, that’s an understandable one to forget. The one piece of advice he lets slide is to not get involved with a story that is a conflict of interest. Given Cal’s friendship with Congressman Collins, that’s exactly what this is. Yet the real scoop here is in the intricately woven story, which ingeniously sees seemingly unrelated events logically fall into place. It’s nice to see a complex screenplay not have to rely on an abundance of contrived dialogue sequences to make sense of it all, allowing us to piece together the picture on our own merit. It helps to make the film an enjoyable and rewarding experience right up until the last twist, which despite being unexpected, was as unnecessary as it was unconvincing.
As the scruffy and overweight journalist Cal, Crowe’s charisma is downright mesmerising. Rachel McAdam’s is convincing as the journalistic sidekick, providing Cal with a youthful angle on the conspiracy story. Most enjoyable is Helen Mirren’s as the paper’s witty editor, who is under pressure from the new corporate owners to make a quick buck selling infotainment instead of pursuing the truth behind the scandal. Ben Affleck seems to be mostly expressionless through the film, yet it feels somewhat fitting for a character whose personal and professional life is crumbling around him. Ultimately, these are characters you care about, which is tremendous feat considering they are politicians and journalists.
Boasting a cracking cast and a deliciously clever script, State of Play is a polished political thriller not to be missed.
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