State of Play: The Quality of Thrill That Would Sell Papers

Here’s a thriller surrounding a newspaper as old and reliable as the newspaper itself. You’ve got your political scandal involving murder, you’ve got your corporate villains, you’ve got your reporter seeking out the truth, you’ve got your plot twists at the end– you can almost certainly guess the final plot twist before you step in the theater if you’ve seen enough of these thrillers, that’s how reliable this film is. However, it manages to be compelling without the pre-requisite thriller special effects– no big set pieces, no explosions– which is testimony to how well the story is being told. The script does just enough to color its main character with some moral ambiguity, and the actors chew into their dialogue with enough gusto, that it transcends its B-movie plot and becomes a fun throwback suspense flick– engaging, interesting, and worth your time.

Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) is an old-school reporter. He keeps an outdated computer, and all of his research is kept on paper in large messy stacks on his desk. Della Frye (Rachel McAdams) is a young ambitious blogger, more interested in the gossip angles than on the true facts of the story. I could have watched an entire film based solely on this conflict with these actors, without all of the rest of the plot… but I’ll continue. A young woman dies from falling in front of the Metro in D.C.– this young woman is the aide of Representative Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck, perfectly cast). His public emotional reaction leads to the speculation that he was having an affair, followed by the truth that he was having an affair– score one for gossip journalism! However, since Collins is leading the way in a public attack against a private homeland security defense operation, PointCorp, perhaps the “fall” of this young woman was not pure coincidence after all. After all, what a boring film it would be if she wasn’t murdered, right? Collins is best friends/roommates from college with McAffrey (which is pure coincidence), so after being told to lay low and let this pass, he admits his suspicions to… a reporter. The hunt is on!

I can gently mock the plot because there’s so much of it, and most of it is so familiar. The reporter vs. blogger battle is the newest and most interesting angle to this film, but they become co-workers and friends after the first half of the film, and once the His Girl Friday banter goes by the wayside, so does this angle. The screenplay is written by an interesting group– you have Billy Ray, who covered the newspaper world in his 2003 film, Shattered Glass, you have Matthew Carnahan, who covered the congress world and the military defense world in his screenplays for Lions For Lambs and The Kingdom, and you have Tony Gilroy, who perfectly nails the corruptions of corporate America in his films Michael Clayton and Duplicity. It seems that all of these men lent their strengths to this film, without ever sacrificing any of the character work. An enormous amount of plot is covered in 2 hours, but it’s executed nimbly.

The performances are what make this film truly worthwhile. Russell Crowe, for all of the flak he catches, is consistently one of the most interesting actors working today, and he can make even the scummiest of characters seem noble and charming. That’s not a trait you learn, it’s something you’re born with– star power. Rachel McAdams needs more work, as she is one of the wittiest and most earnest of her generation of young actresses, who manages to be disarmingly beautiful without the low-cut dresses and sex-kitten lip-pouting. This is one of the best performances I’ve ever seen Ben Affleck give– his leading man work is never as convincing as his interesting supporting character choices (Hollywoodland and Smokin Aces are two other recent examples), and I’d love to see him continue to explore this side of his acting ability. Finally, if there’s one woman in the world who I could believe as the ball-busting boss of Russell Crowe, it’s Helen Mirren. She spits out her dialogue while still managing to reveal a world of depth underneath to a role that would have been dismissed in a worse thriller– she’s of Crowe’s old-school mindset, but unlike him, she is ready to attempt to adapt to keep her job. Mirren is one of the best actresses alive, and she always brings a playful twinkle to her eye when she “slums it” in films like this and in National Treasure 2.

I’d like to give special mention to four very small performances that all left big impacts on the film. Jeff Daniels as the head of Collins’ political party oozes power and political sliminess– his theater background helps him seize the screen for the few minutes he’s on it. Jason Bateman as a drug-addled sleazy PR rep– well, you can probably imagine how good Bateman is in a role like this, as he’s played it a few times now. David Harbour (fresh from his terrific work in Revolutionary Road) as an inside source for Cal from PointCorp– he has two scenes, but manages to really shake up both Cal and the audience with his delivery of his monologues. Finally, Michael Berresse as the assassin who kills two men early on and we believe also the young aide– I had the pleasure of seeing him in Kiss Me Kate on Broadway about eight years ago, in a role that could not be more different than this one. His gaze evokes enormous amounts of menace, and his mere presence on the screen is frightening.

Give credit to Kevin Macdonald, who has been critically acclaimed for his work on documentaries (and who has won an Oscar) for now establishing a reputation as an “actor’s director”– he directed Forest Whitaker to an Oscar in The Last King of Scotland as well. He knows from his work on docs that the story doesn’t really mean a lick unless we can see things from the perspective of as many characters as possible. None of the actors appear to be simply cashing a check here, nor do they seem to realize that this film should simply be a B-grade thriller. They are all doing terrific work, and the script never betrays them. There are some coincidences and some facts ignored until a time convenient for a big plot twist that seem glaring when thinking about them after the film is over… but at the time, none of them bothered me. Just like Cal McAffrey, this film is of an old-school mentality. Put some stars on the screen, let the actors act, and no one needs special effects or explosions– the thrills will be inherent.

Postscript: The dread in this film is so effective partially because we know the assassin is a trained sniper, and the majority of the locations where these actors talk/work/conduct business are in rooms with large windows or glass walls. Little set choices like this have such an enormous impact on the effectiveness of a thriller that credit should given to the terrific production designer, Mark Friedberg. He’s done amazing work with Wes Anderson, Jim Jarmusch, Julie Taymor, and recently did the extraordinary work on Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York. It’s no surprise that the production design here was subtle yet stellar.

~ by russellhainline on April 22, 2009.

3 Responses to “State of Play: The Quality of Thrill That Would Sell Papers”

  1. I enjoyed watching this movie
    but none of it stuck with me afterwards. Generic, pretty good and boring.

  2. I’m really looking forward to see this movie ever since I saw the trailer on TV (you can watch it at

    I’m not a fan of Affleck, but I think this might actually be a good role for him. Russell Crowe almost always delivers. Also, the trailer has a great song, “Unstoppable” by Minutes Til Midnight that does a great job of setting the mood. So yah, personally I’m way excited for this film.

  3. I love this blog!

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