Somewhere in the world of cinema, tucked away in a quiet little corner minding its own business is a very specific genre that keeps to itself and rarely comes out to play with others. The Political Thriller is an odd animal – only a few get made a year – and it has a pretty simple, yet direct definition: it involves a character or group of characters delving deeper and deeper into a conspiracy that has political or governmental implications. That’s it. The basics. However, over the years that this genre has developed, we’ve come to expect a bit more from it. We need twists and turns, alliances made and broken, double-crosses and intrigue. By the basic definition, State of Play is a political thriller, but it fails on all the other levels that make for interesting filmmaking.
When veteran print reporter Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) begins investigating the murder of a young drug addict and notes connections to a story regarding the supposedly accidental death of one of Congressman Stephen Collins’s (Ben Affleck) aides, he teams up with the newspaper’s political blogger Della Frye (Rachel McAdams) and digs deep enough to find a major corporate conspiracy that threatens the democratic nature of our homeland security.
I don’t usually get hung up on genre labels. I like a movie to pass or fail on its own merit and not what subsection it’s supposed to fit into, but it seems obvious that director Kevin Macdonald and company used the structure of the political thriller without adding any of the dramatics of one. For one, the characters are flat and uninteresting. Although Crowe does a great acting job attempting to give nuance where there’s little to be found, Cal McAffrey is little more than a cliche – a salty reporter who talks back, refuses to play by the rules, and always nobly seeks the truth. It’s a character that’s been done many times before, and it doesn’t help that Cal doesn’t have any other major characters to play off.
Unfortunately, the film focuses so much on Cal that the other characters fall by the wayside, never fully developing and never fully having a definitive role in the process of pushing the story forward. McAdams’s Della Frye character is introduced as a possible foil – a young, hip blogger who is quick to post but not invested in getting all of the facts first – but she’s forgotten about mid-way through the movie. She’s supposedly on board to learn a thing or two, but she’s rarely there when Cal makes his discoveries. Because of this, Della is less of a partner and more of a side character not even worthy of a supporting role. Affleck, who never quite gets a grip on playing an up-and-coming congressman in the heat of scandal, is dealt with in a similar way. He’s brought in occasionally when Cal dead-ends elsewhere, but there’s never a sense of who that character is, what motivates him, why we should care about him.
Without a true ensemble, the action drags during the middle of the film. It also drags without a twist to be found anywhere. Cal goes through the routine of discovery like he was doing a college research paper, and the film delivers about as much excitement as that can render. There is a decent action sequence as Cal digs deeper, but it’s mostly suspense instead of action. Without more scenes like it, the film leaves all of the weight to succeed on dramatic moments between characters who aren’t really developed, and it’s difficult to care about serious stares and sighs of frustration when the characters delivering them are so flat.
On top of bland characters and a by-the-numbers conspiracy story, the film also has more than a few odd shot choices that throw off the flow completely. Either Macdonald or cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto are fans of scene tags or they thought that watching characters walk (or half-jog) away after conversations, focusing on street traffic after conversations, and showing odd art-style shots of DC between action would help the story-telling along. It doesn’t. One conversation between Cal and the unethical Representative Fergus (Jeff Daniels) proves to be fairly intense, but that cache is wasted when we have to watch several moments of Cal lumbering his paunchy self awkwardly away instead of cutting to the next scene to keep the energy up.
Perhaps the main issue really resides in the roles that each character has to fill out. There’s not much of a clear delineation between who the antagonist is – and not in the good, twisty we’ll-find-out-near-the-end way. Without someone directly in charge of the conspiracy to confirm what’s actually going on, it makes it unclear who the “good guys” are going up against. This is another side-effect of focusing solely on Cal’s character instead of developing the other side of the story. Plus, since Cal (who is close friends with the Congressman being charged with wrong-doing) sees fit to break a lot of journalistic rules himself, it makes the moral center of the film convoluted, further dragging down an already heavy film from the Boredom Zone into the Headache Zone.
Another side-effect on having so many side characters but only one main one, is that a sub-plot rivalry between the police and the newspaper (that should have very serious implications) is only given two scenes to develop and never has any real resolution. Although it might be better forgotten, since it doesn’t make much sense or have any effect on the outcome of the story anyway.
There’s also the string of terrible character choices that shouldn’t exist – especially in a story as straightforward as this one. It would be difficult to discuss without getting into spoilers, but one that stands out comes near the beginning as Congressman Collins comes to his old college roommate Cal for help. His aide is dead, and there are allegations that he had an affair with her, so of course he has no one else to turn to in the city. The powerful, on-the-rise star congressman has zero other humans to go to except a college roommate he hasn’t talked to in years after a major emotional falling out. This completely illogical choice might have made sense if their relationship was fleshed out a bit, but, of course, the filmmakers didn’t see fit to explain it.
I may be called on the carpet for my personal biases here, but one of the features of the film that really bothered me was the championing of the good of the printed press. I personally love newspapers, love getting the ink on my fingers and feeling the paper in my hands. It’s something I grew up on. However, I understand the limitations of having a print deadline. Shockingly, the filmmakers gloss over that limitation while making it the central focus of the main climax. The reporter is already holding up the print deadline and needs to get the story. Not only does this make for a fairly lackluster goal, it also seems like the kind of story point that should have stopped being in films around 2006. The film treats the internet edition writer (Rachel McAdams’s character Della) like a first-rate idiot for most of the film, and then shines a bright spotlight on the exact advantage that internet publishing has over the printed word. It’ mind-boggling. Not to mention the fact that after all the tension about going to press and holding up the process, Cal and Della finish their stories, share a long drink and apparently while this is going on, the presses are still on hold so that Cal can realize what the story is really about and go get all of those other latent facts. Instead of just firing up the presses with two completely finished stories, it seems as though they wait another solid hour or so for no reason whatsoever just in case Cal has more loose ends to tie up. It’s a plot hole, definitely, but more importantly it kills the action near the end of the film – finally giving the audience a personal moment between the two colleagues that should have come one hundred minutes earlier.
Overall, with shallow characters, and a conspiracy story that is revealed with as much suspense as the instructional manual for assembling an IKEA table, State of Play fails to deliver the intrigue that its genre demands. Politics it has plenty of, but thrills are in short supply.
The Plus Side: A bunch of really good actors and Ben Affleck do their best with the material they’re given.
The Down Side: A political thriller with no thrills, random character choices, and plot holes.
On the Side: DC natives will wonder how one character walks through Adams Morgan to get to the Rosslyn Metro Station as they are over 3 miles apart and across a river from one another. Also, there are some scenes at the Americana Hotel which is right next to where two of my friends live. I have to admit – that’s pretty cool to see on screen.