“State of Play” a fantastic journalistic thriller

by Bill Wine
Posted 3/5/21

Ah, Beltway politics: the political stimulus, the journalistic response, and the big-business muddying of the waters.

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“State of Play” a fantastic journalistic thriller

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Each week, veteran film critic Bill Wine will look back at an important film that is worth watching, either for the first time or again.

Ah, Beltway politics: the political stimulus, the journalistic response, and the big-business muddying of the waters.

That's the dynamic that drives “State of Play,” a densely plotted, terrifically engrossing, bracingly cynical, consistently unpredictable, splendidly acted suspense thriller.

Based on a BBC television series, it's been transplanted from London to Washington, D.C. so that it now stands in the tradition of American journalistic dramas like “All the President’s Men” and “Absence of Malice.”

Russell Crowe plays a reporter for the fictitious Washington Globe, Rachel McAdams is the newspaper's new blogger-in-chief. Theirs is an uneasy alliance, but they'll have to get along.

That's because they're assigned a story by demanding, besieged editor Helen Mirren, one involving the seemingly accidental but nonetheless questionable Washington, D.C. death of the young female assistant to a committee chairman, a high-profile congressman played by Ben Affleck, who is about to begin chairing hearings on a Halliburton-like military contractor suspected of various forms of conspiratorial lawbreaking. Or worse.

Before long, it becomes clear that the married politico's relationship with his assistant was more than strictly professional. And potential conflicts of interest abound on the journalistic side as well: the reporter used to be the congressman's college roommate and was once romantically involved with the congressman's now-wife, and the new corporate owners of the newspaper may have a vested interest in the reporter focusing on more gossipy and less substantive aspects of the story than the reporter would like to pursue.

The follow-the-money narrative at the foundation of the screenplay is undeniably convoluted. That's not so surprising when you consider that a six-hour miniseries has been condensed into a stand-alone feature film. In addition — or, perhaps, as a result — we might balk at what could be construed as too high a level of coincidence streaming through the plot.

However, that also lends the story an almost claustrophobic tightness that pays off down the line, when all the roads converge and the clouds part to reveal what has actually happened. It's then that you replay the narrative in your mind to see whether everyone's behavior has ultimately made sense. It has, even if you haven't bought all of it along the way.

And it makes possible a bristling contemporary exploration of ethics, loyalty, and compromise against a death-of-newsprint background.

You can't help but admit that the journey through the corridors of power has been both absorbing and gratifying thanks to the suspense milked by director Kevin MacDonald and the uniform excellence of the acting ensemble, which includes not only the four principals — Crowe, McAdams, Affleck, and Mirren — but Robin Wright Penn as the embattled congressman's wife, Jeff Daniels as an influential senator, and especially the electrifying Jason Bateman as a public relations hotshot who all but steals the movie.

Thematically weighty and enjoyably escapist at the same time, “State of Play” is a crackerjack journalistic thriller.

Bill Wine is an Emmy-winning film critic who served in that capacity for WTXF and KYW Newsradio. He lives in Chestnut Hill.

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