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Non-Review Review: State of Play

Ah, the good old conspiracy thriller theory movie is alive and well, it would appear. For those not quite up-to-date on Hollywood’s fascination with sequels, remakes and adaptations, State of Play is a remake of the classic BBC miniseries of the same name. Following an old-fashioned investigative reporter as he attempts to investigate the death of a Congressman’s aide, he finds himself getting drawn closer and closer to a lion’s den of corruption and defense contractors. It’s a solid conspiracy movie elevated by superior performances that doesn’t really live up to its potential.

Russell Crowe attempts to explain the plot twists of State of Play to a confused Ben Affleck...

Russell Crowe attempts to explain the plot twists of State of Play to a confused Ben Affleck...

I’ll be honest. I haven’t seen the original BBC miniseries. A close friend of mine has, and he swears by it. His reaction to the movie was more in line with my own. I’m hesitant to comment on a miniseries that I haven’t seen, but it seems that the movie simply doesn’t have the time to explore all the themes it sets out to develop in a simple two-hour run. What we are left with is a solidly entertaining flick, but one that flirts with greatness and insight.

It’s nice to see Ben Affleck back on form. He’s be no means excellent or a revelation – but he hasn’t been this solid since working with Kevin Smith. His congressman is an interesting character who seems real as Affleck characterises him – flawed but aspirational. He wants to make the world a better place, but he isn’t a perfect person himself. The audience doesn’t know quite what to make of him – stand-in for Barack Obama’s politics of hope or a cynic in sheep’s clothing?

Russell Crowe is as solid as ever in a fairly thankless role – his character seems to exist to move from plot device to plot device. It doesn’t help that the movie seems to be using him to hammer home the old ‘news media is dying, but is still noble’ schtick. It barely worked in the epic context of the final season of The Wire, so boiling it down to two hours in the context of everything else that is twisting and turning seems to be a bit of gambit. Admittedly the movie doesn’t ram the idea down the audience’s throat (a fantastic supporting performance from Helen Mirren helps), but it does leave it floating out there along with the others.

The film seems like it is gearing up for a discussion on the new  generation of private armies – ‘defense contractors’ – with the PointCorp group clearly standing in for real-life contrators like BlackWater. The social evolution of these groups in real life is astounding – and that growth and development is hinted at in the film – and is another absolutely huge idea vying for attntion with the other floating around inside the film. What we get here isn’t really any more detailed or complex that what developed in the latest season of 24, which is a shame given how fertile the ground is. Still, the privatisation of security gets greater development as a theme in the movie’s somewhat muddled climax.

Despite all these great ideas, the movie still structures itself as a conspiracy thriller movie. Things still happen purely because they are supposed to happen in a conspiracy thriller movie. My dad was able to predict the final twist in the movie not through careful observation and rational application of logic to the film that was showing in front of us, but through extrapolation from the dozens-upon-dozens of similar movies we’ve seen before. It is perhaps a shame to see so many clever ideas used simply as scenery for so conventional a structure.

On the other hand, maybe it’s a blessing. The movie doesn’t expound upon its philosophy ad infinitum, it instead presents the viewers with some facts (alongside some opinion, but fairly limited when compared to similar films) and lets them make up their own mind, more-or-less. In this era of Hollywood heavy-handedly tackling every major social issue, it’s actually a bit refreshing to see these giant issues not shown to us with a giant label attached to help us identify the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’. That doesn’t mean that anything was really developed over the course the movie, but some interesting facts were put forward – it would be interesting to see how many viewers made the connection between PointCorp and BlackWater, for example.

The movie is fairly standard conspiracy thriller that perhaps doesn’t realise how smart it is – or is smart enough not to push things out too far I’m not sure. In cutting down on the amount of time devoted to ideas, the movie also cuts down on its own capacity to wax lyrical on them, leaving it to the audience to evaluate. An absolutely stunning cast manages to bring the whole movie together in the end. It isn’t amazing, but you’ll see a lot dumber movies this year, and lot worse films this year, and maybe even a lot worse dumber films this year as well.

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State of Play is an adaptation of the BBC miniseries directed by Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) and starring Russell Crowe (Gladiator, The Insider), Ben Affleck (Chasing Amy, Phantoms), Robin Wright Penn (Forrest Gump, Unbreakable), Helen Mirren (The Queen, Prime Suspect), Rachel McAdams (RedEye, Sherlock Holmes), Jason Bateman (The Kingdom, Arrested Development), Jeff Daniels (Dumb and Dumber, The Squid and the Whale), Viola Davis (Doubt), Harry Lennix (24, The Matrix) and Michael Weston (House, Scrubs). It was released in the USA on 17th April 2009 and the UK and Ireland on 24th April 2009.

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