Thursday, November 20, 2014

State of Play

At a time when governments have come under suspicion, when “drone wars” are increasingly blurring the line between “just” and “unjust” wars, and when surveillance and military operations are being contracted out to private companies, State of Play is a taut thriller that reveals not just the evil behind all this, but the evil lurking by its side, hidden and veiled. Borrowing methods employed in various Cold-War thrillers, the film works on the same, juicy level as Michael Clayton, Syriana, The Insider, and Erin Brockovich, because, like them, it works on the level of a tightly-edited corporate thriller.

Part of its taut pace comes, admittedly, from its cast. Russell Crowe, Ben Affleck and Robin Wright Penn, not to mention Helen Mirren, Jason Bateman, and Jeff Daniels, all perform with enough dexterity to assure us that no other cast, however well gilded, could have equaled this one for the film. They spice their roles with just enough interest to keep us attached to them without satisfying us completely. Ordinarily in another movie, this may have been a bit of a letdown. But here, it’s not.

The function of these characters is not to tell us more about themselves, but to define their various relationships with each other. There is just so much secrecy and intrigue, and in the movie’s two-hour length not one minute is wasted over excessively elaborating on what lies beneath its surface. The film owes this to its director. Kevin MacDonald (The Last King of Scotland) has an uncanny ability to immerse his stories, chillingly and accurately, in their backdrops, and this is true for his characters as well. It is a thriller as “rooted” in its setting as Blood Diamond. No other director could have worked at this level, for this film.

The movie is an adaptation of a 2003 BBC political miniseries. The serial lasted six one-hour episodes over one month, and was directed by David Yates, an acclaimed filmmaker of lean thrillers in his own right. It was set in the UK, and had as its main theme the relationship between government and Big Oil. MacDonald has not only transplanted its setting to the US, but in doing so, has also trimmed down its length considerably to fit the bill of a feature film. And, through all this, he has also managed remarkably well to find a corresponding malaise in American politics to fit its Anglo-Saxon counterpart, in the form of Big Business. He has touched on a very pertinent political issue – whether or not the handling of overseas war operations should be given over to unscrupulous, money-for-blood oriented private companies.

Into this tense drama comes an investigative journalist, Cal McCaffrey, played huskily by Crowe (in a role meant for the better-looking, but decidedly too easy-going, Brad Pitt). He is the icon of old-world journalism – the White Knight in search of the truth and nothing but the truth: more concerned with getting his facts right than earning a quick buck out of gossip. Two murders – unrelated at first to each other – become the focus of his attention, and in his investigation, he unearths a connection between the two, with a more than passing, dubious connection to an ambitious senator (Affleck) who is haranguing against a corporate security firm. The victim had been his secretary, and, we learn, kept a more than professional relationship with him.

Along the way, McCaffrey comes dangerously close to certain death at the hands of a killer machine, in the form of a murderous soldier. He also unearths several pieces of evidence vital to his story, held together just enough to sustain our interest until the very end. There is a downside to his perseverance, however – his editor (Mirren) is not of his school, preferring the quick buck than waiting for the universal acclaim that McCaffrey’s methods may get the paper someday, and his partner in his enterprise (Rachel Adams) is almost always in conflict with him over the same issue. But in the end, sanity prevails, and our hero manages to get both their respect. “The Truth Comes Out Only With Time” might as well have been its seven-word summary.

It is not without its flaws, however. The last 15 minutes were devoted entirely to resolving one final puzzle in the plot, and though I won’t mention what it is or whether it was rewarding, I will say that it seemed too stuffy, too overwrought, for me to digest. There are telltale signs right throughout the story that will, at second viewing, make the twist-in-the-end less unexpected, but even so, the conclusion had a false air of contrivance to it that felt decidedly wanting.

But I will say this much as well – despite the way that ending will bring to mind that proverbial broth and the “too many” cooks, the movie still has much in it to sustain our undivided interest from beginning to end. No twist ending, however implausible, is going to dent that. State of Play is a first-rate thriller, which unfortunately, upon its release five years back, did not fare too well at the box-office.