Movie Review - 'State of Play': Vast Conspiracies, Just Waiting To Be Exposed Critic David Edelstein says the new newspapers-and-politicos thriller is stuck in the 1970s — but don't expect All the President's Men. This is one Beltway time bomb that never explodes.
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Vast Conspiracies, Just Waiting To Be Exposed

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Vast Conspiracies, Just Waiting To Be Exposed

Review

Movies

Vast Conspiracies, Just Waiting To Be Exposed

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DAVE DAVIS, host:

Film critic David Edelstein has a review of "State Of Play," a new political thriller adapted from a 2003 BBC miniseries. The setting has been changed to Washington and stars Russell Crowe and Ben Affleck.

DAVID EDELSTEIN: The American version of "State Of Play" feels creaky and nostalgic. It's as if the filmmakers are pining for the days when journalists were all that stood between us and an alliance of the military industrial complex and crypto-fascist politicians. They'd like to bring back the atmosphere of Watergate and "All The President's Men." The reporters, played by Russell Crowe and Rachel McAdams, are photographed through windows or from high above or behind cars in underground garages, as if someone's always watching, while in the background loom icons like the Washington Monument, to remind us how American ideals have been perverted.

For a while, it's gripping stuff. And Crowe's edginess gives the convoluted plot a charge. The problem is, the filmmakers aren't remaking "All The President's Men." They're remaking a six-hour British mini-series with a different thrust. Both versions of "State Of Play" center on university pals who've gone different ways. Cal McAffrey is a scruffy journalist, and Stephen Collins a slick, ambitious politician. An aide to Collins - his mistress, it turns out - is murdered. It's a PR disaster, and Cal is torn. He wants to help his friend clear his name, and he wants to get the story.

The miniseries was an ensemble piece and a portrait of two machines: one investigative, one legislative. It was also a paranoid conspiracy thriller that opened with a murder. But you sense that in the end, it wouldn't come down to a chase or gun battle, that the answers would be in the characters' faces, in secrets even close friends couldn't detect. The new script, by Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gilroy and Billy Ray, makes the reporter more of a lone wolf. Gone is the give-and-take among multiple characters that gave the newspaper scenes texture. It's also a stew of topical headlines: the unchecked power of a Blackwater-like security firm, the financial straits of daily newspapers, the rise of gossipy bloggers.

The allusions add punch, and the Watergate tropes ratchet up suspense. But they prime you for a more conventional thriller. Everything added turns out to be beside the point. The point is blunted, anyway, because the new "State Of Play" is a study in stars' non-combustion. Crowe and Ben Affleck, as Collins, don't fit together. They don't inhabit the same existential space. Crowe is a transformer. His actor's DNA changes in every role. And you always feel his mind racing. Whereas Affleck is slack-jawed, dopey, not quite broken in. He's temperamentally suited to the part.

His opaque, Al Gore-ish affect is the reason, we infer, his character went into politics. But his wheels turn too slowly to keep up. Crowe is doing all the acting.

(Soundbite of movie, "State Of Play")

Mr. RUSSELL CROWE (Actor): (As Cal McAffrey) (Unintelligible) one way or another, they got 40 billion good reasons to want you out of way. You got to go on the record (unintelligible) you got to protect yourself, man.

Mr. BEN AFFLECK (Actor): (As Stephen Collins) You go out there, find me evidence linking Sonia's death to PointCorps. I will go on the record, I will shout this thing from the rooftops.

Mr. CROWE: (As Cal McAffrey) I can do that.

Mr. AFFLECK (Actor): (As Stephen Collins) All right. I've got to get back. I'll be in touch.

Mr. RUSSELL CROWE (Actor): (As Cal McAffrey) Stephen?

Mr. BEN AFFLECK: (As Stephen Collins) Yeah.

Mr. RUSSELL CROWE (Actor): (As Cal McAffrey) Just watch your back.

EDELSTEIN: The music under that scene is one way director Kevin MacDonald gives the illusion of momentum. And until the climax, the movie does fly along, with excellent actors bobbing in and out. It was a neat idea to make McAdams's character a cheeky blogger and an insult to Cal's journalistic scruples. Although after a good confrontational start, she settles into the role of sidekick. Robin Wright Penn brings amazing depth of emotion to Collins's wife. Forced to stand by her man, she evokes the poor spouse of Eliot Spitzer after his prostitution scandal. As the editor of the Washington Globe, Helen Mirren is perfection.

Watch how abruptly she shifts from solicitous to chummy to imperious -anything to get what she needs from her reporters and keep her endangered newspaper afloat. But the climax to which the movie builds is in this context a nonevent - feeble, spurious, and so 1974. "State Of Play" is like a time bomb that's never dismantled but never explodes.

DAVIS: David Edelstein is film critic for "New York" magazine. You can download podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org.

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