Wednesday, April 22, 2009

State of Play (2009, Kevin Macdonald)

Once you had made your Idi Amin movie; once you had followed it with a Gestapo-commander one – what subject do you tackle next…? Kevin Macdonald, the director of freshly released State of Play (2009), finds the answer rather obvious: Washington, D.C. He brings his own style (shaky passing for dynamic) to the Allen Drury and Otto Preminger’s territory, and even if the result is nowhere near to Advice and Consent (1962), it still retains a fair deal of political immediacy (especially considering State of Play’s primary allegiance: that to the thriller genre).

The movie opens with a pursuit so rapid and violent, it’s almost slapstick, but since the camera doesn’t linger on the running man, he’s not a character enough to make us laugh. These first two minutes are by far the finest piece of direction we’ll find in the movie. What follows is a story of Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe), a “Washington Globe” reporter plunging into a case of interrelated murders that ultimately reveal close ties between the Hill and a chain of seemingly independent private military contractors (in fact, they are all one big corporation, our current bogeyman of preference).

The central political metaphor in State of Play is adultery. Committed by both Cal and Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), it defines the politicians’ readiness to jump into bed with the money boys. But whereas all personal betrayals here prove to be at least terminable (if not exactly reconcilable), the big political one remains ultimately untouched.

Russell Crowe is a hair chubbier here, and thus less attractive than usual. Still, he remains a genuine film star. He found a way of blending concentration and ease to a point we no longer see them as separate. When at the beginning of the film he boldly parks his old Saab right under a “No Parking at Any Time” sign, we learn what to expect from this guy and we like it. Later on, Cal is portrayed mainly as an anti-Internet journalist of sorts, a true reporter, his desk stacked with books and his cubicle covered all over with real newspaper clippings. This may be the first mainstream Hollywood movie to praise printed word as superior to a flickering one, and I greet this element even more strongly than all its genuine political concerns.

For all its energy – at times professionally channeled, at times haphazardly wasted – the movie watches like a shaky report from an unchanging world. It’s reassuring in matters like Russell Crowe’s considerable talent, Kevin Macdonald’s unsure hand, and Ben Affleck’s fear of performance. And even if it’s never exactly dull, some weariness creeps in as soon as we’re introduced to the Helen Mirren character: chief editor of “Washington Globe”, doing her best with unimaginative dialogue that seems written straight from some non-Brit’s notion of how funny the English can be when they say “geezer”, or “bugger off”, or “knickers”.

Cal starts his investigation not as a truthseeker, but as a writer. What he says to Stephen is simply this: “You have to build a plausible alternative story”. As the movie progresses, we begin to realize that Cal’s a writer, all right, but the kind that can only write the truth. By the end of State of Play, when Stephen Collins turns “truthseeker” into a dirty word, we learn yet again that it’s the reporter who’s the best guardian of the Capitol Hill (and of all it stands for). Not to spoil the sensation, you better not watch Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (1951) after this one.

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