State of Play (2009)

Rated R. Our ratings: V- 2; L- 4; S/N-1 . Running time: 1 hour 57 minutes

Hear my voice, O God, in my complaint;
preserve my life from the dread enemy.
Hide me from the secret plots of the wicked,
from the scheming of evildoers,
who whet their tongues like swords,
who aim bitter words like arrows,
shooting from ambush at the blameless;
they shoot suddenly and without fear.
They hold fast to their evil purpose;
they talk of laying snares secretly,
thinking, ‘Who can see us?
Who can search out our crimes?
We have thought out a cunningly conceived plot.’
For the human heart and mind are deep.
Psalm 64:1-6

Editor Cameron Lynne is upset with reporters Della Frye and Cal McAffrey.

2009 Universal Pictures.

Based on a British miniseries, the film version suffers from being compressed into a two hour straight jacket, but no one should complain that director Kevin Macdonald’s Washington thriller is dull, the ac tion moving so quickly through the dark alleys and a parking garage of the city to the newsroom and the halls of Congress. When Sonia Baker (Maria Thayer), the Research Assistant for U.S. Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck) falls onto the track as a subway train is pulling into the station, her boss is just opening a hearing when he receives the news. Visibly shaken, tears running down his cheeks are picked up by the ever-present news cameras. Instantly the bloggers are speculating that the Congressman ahs been having an affair with his aide. The police surmise that she had committed suicide.

Meanwhile veteran Washington Globe reporter Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) is investigating the death of a thief and, nearby, the wounding of a bicyclist, both shot down on the street by the same man. Det. Donald Bell (Harry Lennix) is less than happy when Cal shows up in the cyclist’s hospital room hoping to interrogate him. Soon, especially after a sniper shoots and kills the patient, Cal is convinced that all three deaths are connected, a part of some vast conspiracy—Sonia Baker’s death being murder not suicide. Earlier at the newsroom the newly hired Della Frye (Rachel McAdams) had approached Cal because she, having heard that he and the Congressman had been college roommates, wants some background on him for her blog. Disdaining her position of news blogger as nothing but gossip mongering, Cal had told her to bug off.

Of course, they soon are reluctantly working together to run down all the leads, with Cal showing her the ins and out of investigative reporting, in his eyes a calling to get the truth out, not just one’s opinion about the truth. He is constantly harassed by their boss executive editor Cameron Lynne (Helen Mirren) to turn in a story because she herself is being harassed by the new owners, a large conglomerate that is more interested in profits than Pulitzers or other awards for in depth reporting. Cal keeps telling both Cameron and Della that they still do not have the real story. Matters are complicated for Cal because he and Collins wife Anne (Robin Wright Penn) had once been lovers, and both at different times had come to him, Stephen because, as he says, he has no other friend left, he having admitted to the affair with his assistant.

The film connects with recent history in that the company that Congressman Collins has been investigating, PointCorp, resembles Blackwater—it hires former soldiers to protect high level officials and businessmen and profited from its contracts with the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan. At stake is a $40 billion contract with the government, which, Cal learns, will give it effective control of US intelligence gathering. To what lengths would such a company go to protect its interests, threatened by the Congressman’s hearings?

The story also takes note of the dire straits of newspapers in the Internet Age. To me the most moving part of this aspect was the sequence shown over the closing credits: Cal and Della’s story is sent to composition for the front page, which is transferred to a plate; which is attached to the huge rotary press; and soon a stream of paper is rushing through, emerging with the printed papers; which are cut, folded, taken by a moving belt to be bundled; picked up by workers, loaded onto vans, and then distributed throughout the city. Were this made in the Thirties there would be a newsboy yelling “Extra! Read All About it!”

For Reflection/Discussion

1. Critics who have seen the original British miniseries complain that there is no time in the remake for character development. What short cuts does the filmmaker use to suggest character? With Cal McAffrey: what does he wear and what about his grooming? What does his cubical look like? What kind of a car does he drive? With Della Frye: what do we know about her personal life? How does she dress and speak? Does she have a pen, or is she computer-bound? What do we see of Cameron Lynne? How is she trying to straddle two worlds?

2. Compare this to other newspaper films.

3. What do you believe is the future of newspapers? Some worry that with their demise the “Fourth estate,” the only profession given special attention by the US Constitution, will be gravely weakened: what do you think?