Director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) delivers a tight, smartly-told story with the help of an all star cast that includes Russell Crowe (Gladiator, Cinderella Man), Ben Affleck (The Sum of All Fears), and Helen Mirren (Calendar Girls, The Queen). State of Play, based on a British mini-series of the same name, has all the elements you’d expect of a top-notch suspense/thriller: an mysterious death, a government conspiracy, characters with cloudy pasts, all woven together to create a web of intrigue that keeps you guessing until the end.
The film opens with the mysterious death of Sonia Baker, a beautiful young staffer for Congressman Stephen Collins (Affleck). When veteran crime reporter Cal McAffery (Crowe) begins to look into Baker’s death, initially ruled a suicide, he begins to make some shady connections. But his investigative efforts are hampered by the ambitious Della Frye, played by Rachel McAdams (Wedding Crashers, The Family Stone) who’s trying to out-scoop McAffery, and his stingy chief editor Cameron Lynne (Mirren), who’s trying to keep the paper afloat.
As the story progresses, we find that all is not as it seems: Collins has just convened a Congressional hearing on PointCorp, a private contractor who provides mercenaries to the US Government. Baker was Collins’ lead researcher. The relationship between characters is not as clear-cut as first presented either: McAffery and Collins were college roommates. Collins and Baker were lovers. McAffery and Collins’ wife also have a history. And that’s just what you find out in the first few minutes. For the sake of keeping some of the big twists a surprise, I won’t list them here, but suffice it to say that they keep coming to the very end.
This film also examines some of the more interesting aspects of our cultural topography in dealing with the issue of the United States contracting military duties to private companies (interesting that Jack Bauer’s chief nemesis in this season’s 24 is Starkwood, another power-hungry private army). Through the movie, I found myself asking serious questions about the US policy of hiring independent contractors to do military work. The movie didn’t give me any answers, but it certainly did raise the question.
I also enjoyed the watching the dynamic between reporters McAffery and Faye and their editor, Cameron Lynne. The irony presented is that the reporters were the only ones who could get the truth, but the very institution they work for was crumbling under the stress of serving the bottom line. At one point, Lynne declares the story will run whether they’ve finished or not, giving them eight hours to complete their research. In the end, though, she holds the presses for four hours (at $20,000 an hour) so the whole story can see the light of day. Truth wins.
By the time the credits rolled, it turned out to be a film that lived up to both its hype and its cast. It stacks up well next to other great suspense/thrillers in the vein of The Pelican Brief and Michael Clayton. Though State of Play doesn’t break any new ground, and I wouldn’t expect it to win any awards, it is definitely well worth a trip to the theater.