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"State Of Play"
The standard for a Best Picture nominee has been set by this yankee version of a hit six-hour, London-set miniseries on the BBC, moved across the pond to the District of Colombia. Allowing for some fuzzy moments in a complex political thriller, this is as good as it gets. With timely story elements pertaining to the effects of worldwide economies and on-line encroachment on grand old newspapers, it crackles with suspense and fires on all creative cylinders. Every single one.
To start this off with dramatic flare and daring, two opening sequences demonstrate that death is everywhere. It's night in Washington D.C., when a man crashes into bystanders, bounces off cars and runs like a banshee to escape a pursuer as though he knows that it's his life if he's caught. He finds a hiding place behind disposal objects in a dark alley, out of breath, fear pulsing through his veins. For good reason. He's suddenly shot, dead. The killer adds a second shot with his silenced handgun, a coup d'grace. As he stands there, ready to wrap up his bloody business, a man passes behind him, traversing the alley on a bicycle. The assassin turns, and puts a few shots into the witness, as well.
It's day. We follow Sonia Baker (Maria Thayer) a red-headed woman from the steps of the U.S. Congress to a subway station platform as a train approaches. We barely get a look at her face but the hair, the body and the urgency of her movements are striking. In fact, in the final frames of this prologue scene, we're behind her, as though seeing her from the vantage point of another traveler on the platform. Just as the front end of the train is about to pass her --but not quite-- the scene goes to black. We don't see her murder.
None of which is lost on grizzled vet reporter Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) who is following the story more out of his personal attachment to the Congressman than for prurient interest. Cal, it turns out, was entangled with his old friend in a triagulation for Anne's hand, a competition which Stephen won, but with a wake of feelings that still smarts.
Wishing to make the most of the scandal for the benefit of her venerable and struggling Washington Globe newspaper, editor Cameron Lynne (Helen Mirren) puts her primary investigative journalist on the case to look for the political/corruption angle that will put them first. On background and the romance angle, she unleashes saucily smart and knockout pretty Della Frye (Rachel McAdams, "Red Eye"), a success on the blogging circuit and more than eager to spread her gorgeous wings into print.
As much as Della admires Cal for his long experience and proven talent, she distrusts his agreement to work with her, insisting at every turn to be included in the action no matter how risky. But, as they start to uncover a manhole of politically driven secrecy and manipulation, the personal parts are his, by necessity, causing Della to act on her own initiative. She pays a price but earns some kudos when she visits the hospital room of the recovering bicycle witness after having seen our killer at the elevator. Before she can ask a question, however, a spray of bullets kills the patient and bloodies her.
The stakes and the assumptions are rechannelled. The theory that Sonia's assassination was the doing of corporate giant PointCorp in order to sabotage Stephen's committee investigation may be misdirected. Because of Della's sighting, new connections are made in the tangled tale and Cal comes under a witheringly suspenseful attack by a killer who has never missed.
For all its intricacy and maybe a few fuzzy moments, the mystery and its solution are held in view with laser clarity, which makes it avoid the trap of the conscious and unconscious confusion that hounds so many exemplars of the genre. It's almost a surprise to learn that Tony Gilroy, the writer of "Duplicity"--one of the worst of the recent lot on the scale of bewilderment--co-authored this screenplay. It's as though he went to school on that Clive Owen-Julia Roberts starrer and graduated to the head of his class on "State of Play."
But, that's how it may appear if you only see the two films. Looking further back, we can be blown away by Gilroy's similar mix of action and character on the three-part "Bourne" series, a creative style he's born for. Kudos. Matthew Michael Carnahan (ill-fated "Lions for Lambs" and "The Kingdom") was his co-writer. As for the director who mastered the power of the plot, Kevin Macdonald, as a Scotsman, we might assume that he followed the BBC series throughout its 2003 season.
Not that that would be a requisite or, even an advantage necessarily. One may assume, however, that this work establishes him on the highest level of regard which is all the more fascinating for the fact that his prior credits are so lean and so singular. While the series was unspooling in Blighty, he directed the extraordinarily presented mountain climbing catastrophe, "Touching the Void." A big step up the feature film ladder for him was "The Last King of Scotland" in 2006 which may explain why he caught the reins on this one.
To the extent that he was in on the choice of leads and supporting cast, and in his ability to exact brilliance of performance in service to the tale, talent is evident there, as well. Although Brad Pitt and Edward Norton were originally signed on, second choices Crowe and Affleck hit it out of the park, Crowe's emulation of an individualistically attired and coifed bear of an old-timer being as fearsome and huggable as any admirable eccentric.
McAdams illuminates every frame she occupies, expressing high ambition in a ladylike and sympathetic package. Her work here should break her out of the "B" romantic feature mold in which she's been encased, although her two upcoming films ("The Time Traveler's Wife," "Sherlock Holmes") will accomplish that, for sure. Affleck's demeanor and range suits the role of a conflicted man caught in a vise of iniquity and appearances. And, while Helen Mirren might seem a good choice in view of the project's pedigree, and she does a serviceable job in a limited role, one might wish for another yank on the desk she occupies in the drama. Admittedly, a minor carp.
The list of high creative achievement goes on. Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto's ("Babel") lighting and camerawork is uncompromising in care and consistency, with mood and delineation always in mind. Alex Heffes' ("The Last King of Scotland") score is brilliant and properly stimulating at every turn, notably surprising only in its unwavering inventiveness. His work is augmented by "Dead Reckoning" by Clint Mansell and "The Night Pat Murphy Died" performed by Great Big Sea, two delights.
The atmosphere of newsrooms is well observed enough for you to smell the ink and the newsprint permeating the musty, organized mess. The culture of the business and the practice can share honors with "All the President's Men" and the more recent "Zodiac." Deliciously, the press line makes the final statement in an end-title epilogue.
It's rare for me not to complain about films over two hours in length. The clarity and suspenseful cohesion of this, however, kept me riveted for its entire 127-minute length. Would that I could say that more often.
~~ Jules Brenner