Film Review | Sunday, 03 May 2009
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Putting the dead in deadline

The cinematic releases of the next couple of weeks will be dominated by that somewhat forgotten figure, The Real Man. With X-Men Origins: Wolverine, we’ll see the origin of the beloved Marvel Comics character Hugh Jackman gave life to, gaining the approval of the myriad comic geeks anxious to see how their favourite character will survive that chequered transition from page to screen, while doubtlessly making life easier for the girlfriends dragged along to the cinema to sit through the X-Men trilogy. Russell Crowe, actually a contender for the role of Wolverine (having the credentials to match the claw-bearing anti-hero’s mythic rages and ruffled, underdog charm) also makes an appearance at the multiplexes, with Kevin Macdonald’s adaptation of the BBC six-hour mini-series State of Play.
But while his ruggedness is very much evident, he’s as far away as Gladiator as he could get, as the role of journalist Cal McAffrey is closer to his role in that other conspiracy thriller, Michael Mann’s The Insider. As in that film, here Crowe is compelled to fight a moral crusade as the walls begin to close in on his friend, Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), after the assassination of his research assistant, Sonia Baker (Maria Thayer). Collins breaks down in public over her death, and the press immediately begin to bandy about speculations regarding a possible affair between the two. Hemmed in by all this, Collins seeks McAffrey’s help (the two were roommates in collage). Aided by the plucky new girl in the newsroom Della Frye (Rachel MacAdams) and pressured into publishing every scrap of dirt he can find on the case by his cynical editor Cameron Lynne (Helen Mirren), McAffrey begins to uncover a conspiracy with terrifying implications.
Director Kevin Macdonald is gradually chiselling in his experience as a documentary filmmaker into dramatic films. As with The Last King of Scotland, a fictionalised account revolving around the real-life figure of Idi Amin, State of Play could easily have been accompanied by a ‘loosely based on true events’ tag, without it seeming jarring. Part of this, of course, is largely possible due to Macdonalds precise handling of the cinematic devices that make his fiction so believable. From the very beginning, the Washington, D.C. setting is suffused by treacherous shadows: anything could happen, and it often does. The rendering of the newsroom is also a beguiling set-piece in its own right. True, the Washington Globe seems populated by Dickensian grotesques for the most part…but don’t deadlines put us all on an extreme edge? And in the case of Mirren’s Cameron, we get the pleasure of watching a grade-A actress run overboard on toxic fuel, her playful banter with McAffrey a welcome intrusion into the heavily-plotted conspiracy film. She also gets some of the film’s best lines though sadly, she has little to compete with. A committee-written screenplay never augurs well - we come into the film prepared to witness a contrived narrative: clockwork at best, messy at worst. State of Play works because the three screenwriters involved (Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gilroy and Billy Ray) are an able bunch: Carnahan handled political intrigue with Lions for Lambs, Gilroy showed he could do corporate-conspiracy thrillers with Michael Clayton and a gripping yarn with the Bourne Trilogy while Billy Ray brought life to the newsroom with Shattered Glass. Together they’ve got all bases covered, but they can’t help the fact that condensing a six-hour drama is quite the feat, and that the chemistry between Affleck and Crowe just wasn’t there. The fact that Brad Pitt passed on the role of McAffrey seems to be a blessing: Crowe’s shaggy, pot-bellied whiskey-guzzling take is a refreshing pleasure. But at one point, Stephen Collins was going to be played by Edward Norton (an eerie reprisal of Fight Club would have ensued if Pitt would have stayed on board). Affleck is simply too young to play a convincing college-pal to Crowe. It doesn’t help that the gimmicks employed to create a sense of camaraderie just come off as pat. When the unshaven, disgraced Collins shows up at McAffrey’s doorstep, he quips: “Now I can finally give you that Roxy Music CD back…”
But this deters very little from the fact that Macdonald and co. have managed to condense a six-hour series into a two-and-a-half hour film, which never feels dragging because of the relentless pace of its intricate but clearly-plotted (a rarity in this genre) yarn.

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