by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
Our “feature” last night was State of Play, a 2009 thriller that was in one sense a casualty of the Screen Writers’ Guild strike — the filmmakers originally wanted Brad Pitt for the lead role of Washington Globe (read: Washington Post) reporter Cal McAffrey, but Pitt wanted the script rewritten so the filmmakers reluctantly let him go and signed Russell Crowe, who was willing to play the part with the script as it stood when the strike started. It’s a quite impressive movie, even though when director Kevin Macdonald (working from a script that had already been through a round robin of writers — Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gilroy and Billy Ray took turns on an adaptation of a six-hour miniseries for British TV originally aired in 2003) said he was inspired by 1970’s political thrillers in general and All the President’s Men in particular, he wasn’t kidding.
Though the film is a work of fiction with all the appropriate disclaimers, the basic situation appears borrowed from the murder of Washington staff member Chandra Levy and the scandal surrounding her employer, California Congressmember Gary Condit, who was accused of having an affair with her (which he probably was) and of killing her (which he probably didn’t). It opens with a series of confusing and ill-connected images involving a man being tracked to a subway station and murdered by two mysterious assailants, and a breaking scandal that erupts when Congressmember Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck, in his best performance since his marvelous work as George Reeves in Hollywoodland) interrupts a hearing he’s chairing to investigate the private military contracting firm PointCorp (read: Blackwater, or as it now unpronounceably calls itself, Xe Services) to announce that his key researcher, Sonia Baker (Maria Thayer), has just been found dead. It soon develops that Congressmember Collins was having an affair with Sonia; that he and reporter McAffrey are old college buddies; and that McAffrey was in love with Stephen’s wife Anne (Robin Wright Penn) before she married Collins … and indeed is still carrying a torch for her, while she’s using him as an off-the-record sounding board for her marital woes. It also develops that of the 16 companies that have won private contracting bids from the Department of Homeland Security, 14 are secret subsidiaries of PointCorp — and the ambition of PointCorp’s CEO is not only to make billions of dollars off the U.S. government fighting the “war on terror” but to set up a private army that will hold the balance of power in U.S. politics and governance.
The movie is not only plotted like a 1970’s thriller, it’s paced like one; it builds excitement less by spectacular action scenes than by the slow building up of information and suspense, and while there are a couple of surprise thriller twists (they’d hardly have got Tony Gilroy as one of the screenwriters if they weren’t planning on a couple of neck-snapping “reversals” along the way!), for the most part the film is taut drama rather than “thrill ride,” tightly knit suspense that builds to a couple of revelations that power the plot to its finish. It’s also got some timely comments about the entire state of journalism in the U.S. today, as Washington Globe editor-publisher Cameron Lynne (an appropriately imperious Helen Mirren) is still managing the paper but has lost control of it to a mysterious new corporate owner (Rupert Murdoch and the Wall Street Journal?) who’s pushing her to focus less on politics and more on sex. The voice of the new order at the paper is Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), a blogger who wants to smear Congressmember Collins for his extramarital affair and doesn’t give a damn about PointCorp and whether or not its actions and growing power threaten American liberties.
Eventually Cal and Della end up as unlikely and uncomfortable partners trying to get to the bottom of both stories, and they find [spoiler alert!] that the murdered aide Sonia Baker, far from being a fearless do-gooder out to expose PointCorp, was actually on PointCorp’s payroll; and her assignment was to reveal to PointCorp’s lobbyist and P.R. man Dominic Foy (Jason Bateman) just what the committee had on the company, so it could be passed on to PointCorp and they could neutralize it. Seducing Congressmember Collins wasn’t necessarily part of her PointCorp job description, but in the end she fell genuinely in love with him and even got pregnant by him — only when he learned of her betrayal, Collins not only freaked out [spoiler alert II!] but ordered his old Army buddy from the 1990-91 Gulf War, Robert Bingham (Michael Berresse), whom we’ve seen throughout the movie but assumed he was a PointCorp hit man, to eliminate Sonia. The movie ends with Cal and Della racing to complete their dual stories, exposing both Congressmember Collins as a murderer and PointCorp as a corrupt company, while an increasingly nervous editor holds the front page open for them and there’s a moment of indecision as to whether Cal will hit the “send” button that will electronically file his copy: in the end he can’t do it and tells his editor to do it for him. (State of Play is mostly well written — despite the committee-generated screenplay — but one could have wished for a more Maltese Falcon-like confrontation between the two men that would have made Cal’s dilemma — serve his friend or serve the truth? — more vivid and poignant.)
State of Play, like most recent movies about politics and the “war on terror,” sank at the box office virtually without a trace, probably more a victim of the current Zeitgeist than anything else: in the 1970’s, when journalists were considered crusading heroes against government corruption, moviegoers flocked to see stories like this, but in the first summer of the Tea Party, with most of the American public regarding journalists as about as believable as used-car salesmen, the filmmakers would probably have been better off commercially if they’d reframed their story to make Cal the token Right-winger on a “liberal media” paper triumphing by exposing the corrupt Democratic Congressmember who was trying to take down a good, patriotic, entrepreneurial American corporation like PointCorp. State of Play is actually a quite good movie — the actors are appropriately cast (this is one of those films in which name-brand stars actually subsume themselves in their roles instead of standing out like sore thumbs and saying “Look at me! I’m famous!”), Macdonald’s direction is slow but riveting, and the script is rooted well enough in the real world that we can enjoy it as something more than just a cool piece of fiction — but ideologically it seems like an atavistic throwback to values from the 1960’s and 1970’s that no longer matter to an America that has simply accepted as a fact of life that all politicians are corrupt; that all attempts to use the power of government to fight evil or do good are foredoomed; and that only an unfettered “free market” can deliver a working economy or a just society. It’s one thing to buck that trend with a parable set in the science-fiction future — as when James Cameron took hundreds of millions of dollars of Rupert Murdoch’s money and came up with pro-environmentalist, anti-militarist, anti-capitalist Avatar — but that’s not a message today’s U.S. filmgoers will accept in a movie set in their own time and country.