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State of Play

(2009) *** Pg-13
118 min. Universal Pictures. Director: Kevin MacDonald. Cast: Russell Crowe, Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams, Helen Mirren, Robin Wright Penn.

/content/films/3392/1.jpgShould a filmmaker want to woo journalists, there are a few sure-fire ways (like depicting antisocial schlubs finding romance), but director Kevin Macdonald proves especially savvy with State of Play. The American remake of the acclaimed 2003 BBC miniseries retains writer Paul Abbott’s theme about the tenuous relationship between the first and fourth estates, woven through a mystery-thriller press procedural, but Macdonald shifts the emphasis to highlight a moment when declining readership and corporate bottom lines threaten the tradition of print journalism. As Helen Mirren’s editor-in-chief yells, "The real story is the sinking of this bloody newspaper!”

State of Play feels the burn of translating six hours of drama to two, but hot scribes Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gilroy, and Billy Ray (and an uncredited Peter Morgan) streamline the story without entirely sacrificing wit. “Washington Globe” reporter Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) links two seemingly unconnected violent incidents to each other and to his college roommate turned Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck). The apparent suicide of Collins’ young and pretty aide leads to the revelation that Collins has been cheating on his wife Anne (Robin Wright Penn), a secret that proves intertwined with the shooting of a street thief and an innocent bystander. As a political firestorm blazes, McAffrey and Collins prowl around each other with mixed feelings of friendship and professional self-preservation. The Congressman’s burning question: “Am I talking to my friend now, or am I talking to a reporter?”

The ghost of All the President’s Men haunts the proceedings as much as the original miniseries, but the tainting of the public trust has crept its way outward from politicians to the news outlets investigating them. In both quarters, the phenomenon has much to do with the unchecked growth of corporations (for Collins, the dragon is private defense contractor PointCorp, while McAffrey at the “Globe” lives under the newly posted sign “A MediaCorp Company”). “They’re not accountable to anyone,” says one informer says of PointCorp. “It’s the Muslim-terror Gold Rush…the privatization of homeland security.”

Meanwhile, the cautious corporate keepers of Mirren’s Cameron Lynne won’t allow her to print the dots McAffrey and his rookie shadow Della Frye (Rachel McAdams) are connecting without an unequivocal statement on record (it’s a sub-theme that Frye, of the blogosphere, needs schooling from seasoned beat reporter McAffrey). For all the criticism of greedy corporate intrusiveness, the devil remains within the protagonist and antagonist. McAffrey denies up and down what’s clearly a conflict of interest (exacerbated by his having slept with Anne), while Collins is willing to pull strings until the fabric unravels entirely.

The new State of Play never feels lived-in (the secret of its patient predecessor), but Crowe has gotten a bit of his mojo back here, and he’s well-supported by a cast that also includes Jason Bateman, Jeff Daniels, Harry Lennix, and Viola Davis (Affleck does his best, but still looks like he’s playing dress-up with his father’s suit). A dollop or two of low-tech action helps to keep the picture simmering, and stay in your seat for the closing main titles: a loving, wistful, and--one hopes--premature elegy for the newspaper.

[This review first appeared in the Palo Alto Weekly.]

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Aspect ratios: 2.35:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

Street date: 9/1/2009

Distributor: Universal Studios Home Entertainment

Universal does it again with a stellar hi-def A/V transfer for State of Play on Blu-ray. The theatrical experience comes home with a deep and textured picture that accurately recreates color, black level, and contrast down to the tiniest detail and without a hint of digital noise (the image comes direct from a digital intermediate source, which certainly helps). The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 does a good job of completing the "you are there" effect; though it's not the most dynamic soundscape on the market,the dialogue is, crucially, clear, with enough ambient sounds credibly to bring each Washington setting to life.

Universal adds value with two U-Control features: a Picture-in-Picture track with cast and crew interviews and behind the scenes footage, as well as Washington D.C. Locations, offering text descriptions (including historical context) and Google-enabled satellite views of the locations you're seeing in the film.

Also on hand: a brief selection of "Deleted Scenes" (3:39, SD) and the interesting featurette "The Making of State of Play" (18:45, HD). No interview with Ben Affleck (despite what the BD case says), but everyone else from whom you'd hope to hear and more contribute comments: director Kevin MacDonald, Russell Crowe, Rachel McAdams, Helen Mirren, Jeff Daniels, producer Andrew Hauptman, executive producer E. Bennett Walsh, news media consultant R.B. Brenner, and production designer Mark Friedberg.

Lastly, you can always count on Universal for its My Scenes bookmarking feature and a BD-Live hookup for additional online content.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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