Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Cinema 2009: Crowe as old school reporter

"State of Play" from 2009 is a darn good thriller.

In it Russell Crowe plays Cal, an old school newspaper reporter driven to seek the truth even as he is compromised by a checkered past and the expediencies of his trade. Cal works at the fictional Washington Globe, whose publisher is a salty but rudderless leader, played with gusto by Helen Mirren.

Cal is middle-aged, pudgy and dresses in shabby chic, often minus the chic, but he exhibits the spleen of a pit bull and the acerbic wit of a sober leprechaun. As he pursues "a real story" Cal must overcome the distrust of a younger colleague while navigating a swamp of sources ready to accuse him of manipulation, even as those same sources scheme for their own the best possible portrayal in the final edit.

"State of Play" folds in its heavy dose of melodrama deftly enough to make the whole soufflé of a film tasty. There are enough scenes of Washington, D.C., to create a solid sense of place. The movie captures the pulse of our nation's capital, even if director Kevin Macdonald overworks the "unsteady" cam operator. The plot is aptly ripped from Iraq War-era headlines, with fictional security contractor Pointcorp playing Blackwater. But the nuts and bolts of the Hollywood plot, especially the role of a mentally unstable assassin to personify the evil and misguided zeal of what is finally a corporate entity, does a disservice to the thinking members of the audience, however dwindling that demographic may be.

As Cal chases down leads, the movie highlights contemporary conflicts and pressures in the newspaper industry, for example, print vs. web and corporate profits vs. the news. The more traditional rubs are also explored, for example, reporter vs. editor and journalism vs. PR. What newspaperman would not enjoy the special rendition of a particularly obnoxious publicity man? Cal lives that fantasy here.

Despite Cal's rumpled exterior and the clutter of news clippings around his desk — an image that is anathema to the modern electronic paradigm — he is a veteran reporter who enjoys the deep-rooted admiration of his longtime colleagues, and is begrudged respect by his publisher, beset as she is by the financial struggles of her paper.

Ben Affleck plays Congressman Collins, a young, "show horse" of an elected official, presiding over hearings into Pointcorp's operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and an old college roommate of Cal's who shares plenty of history with the reporter.

Dressed in expensive threads and encircled by a coterie of aides, Affleck totally looks the part of the brash hard-charger. A great framing close-up of Collins with the Capitol dome in the background nails it for the viewer in an instant: here is a rising star. But Collins arrives late for those hearings, and that seed of dissonance does not take long to sprout. There is a scandal brewing.

Unfortunately, Affleck's portrayal of Collins never goes beyond that one-dimensional image. There is great cinematography — shadows playing off Collins’ brow when he confronts his wife and his own dishonesty — but it cannot carry the role for Affleck. Nor can montage substitute for a full blown psychological soliloquy — Collins' interview with the paper's editorial staff is fudged using voiced-over images.

Crowe on the other hand delivers a workman-like performance although "State of Play," despite fine production values, comes off as a minor film. Perhaps Crowe's best moment is when, suddenly face to face with a killer, the resourceful and glib Cal stammers uncontrollably with fear.

The trope of the mismatched partners is served up here as well, as shaggy Cal and youngish cub reporter Della (Rachel McAdams) are thrown together with all the sweet syrup of a PG-13 rating. The two of them even break out the booze in the editorial room, homage perhaps to an old, oft romanticized stereotype.

"State of Play" is highly enjoyable. The editing is spot on, the pace unassailable, the musical score majestic and suspenseful. Crowe's modulated intensity distracts from the soppy aspects of the plot, as do the many great real-life details transformed here into defining images.

Besides, with all the mockery here, zinging dialog, and the appearance of Jeff Daniels so obviously relishing his minor role, “State of Play” provides plenty of leeway for laughter.

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