' Cinema Romantico: State of Play

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

State of Play

(Note: I am issuing a spoiler alert before I say even one word. Got it? Good.)

Do you know why "All The President's Men" was such a good movie? It was such a good movie because the writer (in this case, William Goldman) was writing strictly from fact and because he was writing strictly from fact his script could not fall prey to the totally played out third act reversal that has become standard fare for these sorts of movies. Thus, when the reversal inevitably shows up in "State of Play" I wasn't thinking, "I'm shocked! Shocked, I say!" I was thinking, "Oh, no, heeeeere we go."

I'm not here to discuss director Kevin Macdonald's message in relation to the accelerated death of newspapers nor to address what might have been a few subtle shots at myself and my blogging brotherhood (if by subtle you mean sliding onto the roof directly above the audience and dropping anvils on their heads). I'm here to discuss his movie and how it was made.

It opens with a trio of deaths: a junkie thief, a pizza man, and a young, comely intern (is there any other kind?) for Senator Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck) who has apparently committed suicide by throwing herself in front of a subway. Or has she? Two reporters at the Washington Post...whoops! I meant the Washington Globe, my apologies!...are tracking these developments. Intrepid Cal McAffery (Russell Crowe) is on the trail of the initial two murders and a young, naive gossip blogger with a They-Just-Don't-Make-'Em-Like-This-Anymore name of Della Frye (Rachel McAdams) is following up the notion Collins was having an affair with his intern, what when you consider she had been the lead researcher on his Congressional committee investigating Pointcorp - your usual scandalous company that, in this case, is turning American soldiers into mercenaries for hire - and upon announcement of her death Collins goes on live TV and sheds some tears.

Ah, but that's not all. Not even close. Cal is personal friends with Collins (a subplot that needed more fleshing out) and used to date Collins' wife (Robin Wright Penn) in college who is now essentially separated from her husband though when times get tough she will not hesitate to do what she has to do and make like Mrs. Eliot Spitzer, standing by her man. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the Globe's editor, Cameron Lynne (Helen Mirren), rants and raves about "deadlines" and how they are "behind" a story they were once in front of and how other papers are putting out what sells and that the Globe needs to be doing the same even if part of her might know the potential story possesses some true worth. Wait, I haven't even mentioned poor Jeff Daniels who falls prey to the esteemed Roger Ebert's Law of Economy of Characters.

The movie really does some nice things for the first two acts. Cal is not above bending the rules to his advantage - sometimes bending them with extreme prejudice - and at one point the Globe choosing to sit on some key evidence, which is within their rights, has adverse consequences. It's nice to see a main character that has a certain amount of nobility but is not noble, if you know what I mean. Crowe, appearing to have gone through that famed method process of his by putting on the pounds and letting his hair grow, distinctly comes across as someone who would be as darn dogged as he is.

The rapport that develops between Cal and Della once their editor assigns them to work together allows for many good moments even if it's basis is in the taking-the-protege-under-my-wing angle. One moment calls for him to say - and I'm going from memory here so I apologize - "You're not a blogger, you're a reporter" and she says "At last" and then laughs a little. Now just reading it here, and probably reading it in the actual screenplay, made it seem quite corny but the way Crowe and McAdams say it make it come across like the characters are having some fun with that old cliche. It's good, good stuff.

McAdams is just perfect for this role. She's at once determined and in over her head and makes both these concepts ring true simultaneously. The way she demands her editor to keep her on the story is just so in character I laughed out loud. (A word here about McAdams. I know I stump for a lot of actresses on this blog, and I think it's important because it's much tougher for actresses to get good roles in this game, but I think that 10, 15 years from now - and I want to stress that I sincerely believe this - we could be viewing McAdams as the pre-eminent American actress. It's why someone needs to give her a movie. I don't mean a supporting role like this, I'm talking about the primo part. I'm talking about the Russell Crowe part in "State of Play", and even a little more. I'm talking about the whole shebang. Risk it, producers, and you will be rewarded. I promise. Give her a movie. Please. In fact, the unfortunate plight of actresses is underscored in this movie by the appearance of Viola Davis, a recent Oscar nominee, for God's sake, appearing in but a single and rather unmemorable scene.)

Robin Wright Penn is not afforded a whole lot of screen time but is rather moving and gallant in the little she is given. Her unspoken understanding that this was all part of the deal, that it goes with the territory, is well done and there is something both terribly sad and, yet, terribly moving when she turns up at the Globe offices with her husband near the end. The political marriage is a beast I don't think any of us will ever fully grasp and something of which I personally would never ever want any part.

But, to return to cliches, the end is the hardest part of a movie and "State of Play" merely re-illustrates this notion. The wheels are already starting to slip and slide a little at the start of the third act (though a certain actor who I did not know was in the movie and whose identity I will therefore not reveal to allow you the same surprise as me injects a bit of life into the proceedings) but if it had wrapped up with the moments of Cal and Della having a little whiskey at their desks, well, I might have gone home a whole lot happier. That said, the writers would have needed to tweak and adjust some things at other points in the movie, particularly in relation to Cal and Collins' friendship, but would that have been so hard? Yes, personal relationships have been stained but we've put the truth out there, regardless of the medium, and that's what matters. It could have been a slow fade to black instead of the turbulent, talky conclusion we receive.

Astute viewers will notice the credits indicating the movie was Written By Matthew Michael Carnahan And By Tony Gilroy And Billy Ray, which is to presume that due to the presence of the first "And" that Mr. Carnahan wrote the initial script and Gilroy and Ray were brought in for re-writes. I discussed Gilroy, the writer/director of "Duplicity" as well as the fantastic "Michael Clayton", last week and Ray was the writer and director of the excellent journalism film "Shattered Glass". Admittedly, Ray has a few other dubious credits but Gilroy? A hack he is not, and so I wonder how and where the script went wrong. Were Gilroy and Ray called in 48 hours before filming and told, "The third act. We need a sudden reversal. Oh, and gunshots. We need gunshots. If someone isn't wielding a gun in the last ten minutes of this movie I'm gonna be very upset. Make it happen."

Imgaine, if you will, that in the "All The President's Men" there comes a moment when Woodward and Bernstein are about to file their story and then John Dean happens along to offer congratulations and, by the chanciest of chances, says a few lines that appear harmless except when he leaves Woodward re-runs these lines over in his head and realizes that - gasp! - "It was Dean. Dean was the mastermind of the entire cover-up. My God. This changes everything!" And then they go hustle around the D.C. streets some more and we hear more exposition when we were already expositioned-out and now whatever message the filmmakers were trying to convey is lost in this useless need to shock and awe. Do you know how mad you would be?

2 comments:

Rory Larry said...

You wanted Viola Davis to have a larger role in a movie filmed at the earliest last year because she won an Oscar which only happened two months ago? I don't think that is a valid complaint. Next year that will be a valid complaint.

Nicholas Prigge said...

I understand this movie was filmed prior to her Oscar nomination but it still signals a clear inability by most producers or production companies or whatever you want to call them to actually recognize talent when they see it.