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Michael Jones

Michael Jones

Posted April 23, 2009 | 07:08 PM (EST)

State of Play


What fun. What a mess. What a fine mess. A movie with plot holes large enough to fly the new Airbus 380 through. Russell Crowe, as a Woodward-Bernstein-Royko-Breslin American reporter for a DC daily. I say 'American', he being Australian, with the entire theater under influence of the RC based character of Tropic Thunder sensitive to what role prep he did to disappear into a such a hirsute decent accented character.

A throw back newsroom, bustling with reporters, the classic city editor, minus the cigar (one wonders if even studios are smoke free these days- the one smoker in the movie is upbraided and beaten senseless), and a pretty cub reporter providing a uber-modern blogger versus print subplot. And, of course, the wonderful Ben Affleck, so earnest that he can only do earnest. An actor whose face could be an advertisement for Botox, unlined, unaged, and virtually expressionless. I really like Ben Affleck, but based on State of Play, one can imagine the director to Ben and Ben to the director: what are we looking for here ... mahogany? Southern Pine? A walnut veneer with oak underneath? If you need more emotion, I can do plywood.

Helen Mirren, playing the hard bitten publisher fighting City Hall, the police, the politicians, the Mob ... no, wait, in this modern newspaper movie she is fighting new corporate owners who want profits not journalism, sensational celebrities not investigative reporting. She grimaces and lays down the law: "We only print what sells, the hell with news, or accuracy, or context, or facts."

Given recent events in the news biz, her lecture seems a decade late, as most newspapers crossed that particular Rubicon a long long time ago.

A story is so topical that in our showing, Homeland Security Chief Janet Napolitano introduced the movie from the front of the theater. Using a megaphone she asked for a show of hands of any anti-abortion, gun owning, McCain voting, frustrated/homeless/PTSD veterans to please move to the front to be identified, photographed, and data based for future surveillance and easy pick up.

The story: depending on your political persuasion, either an insightful wake up call to the danger of security companies taking over the world or some blather about a Blackwater look alike killing as many Iraqi civilians as possible, recruiting an army of traitorous former Green Berets, Navy Seals, and black op guys to, uh, take over the world.

Or is this the plot of "24" this year?

With rapacious pirates attacking ships daily, the Taliban executing eloping young couples, and the ongoing murderousness in narco-Mexico, it's beyond irony that Hollywood sees more drama and danger in Blackwater, the economics of newspapers, and returning combat veterans.

Ominous helicopters are a steady background to many scenes, slaloming around DC's familiar monuments, and mysterious unknowns populate street corners at will to add an Orwellian atmosphere. The "State of Play" begins with a street crime, and we're off to Thrillerland. The petty larceny turns out to be much more sinister than it first appears, and Russell is on the case as a hard but loveable loner journalist fighting management and police to get to the bottom of what fresh hell all of this is. A cute as a button blogger, lately hired by the paper, becomes his unlikely sidekick. His former college roommate, played by the man of a thousand expressions as long as they are earnest, Ben Affleck, up to his unlined face in it all, trailing a beautiful wife (I thought Jenny had died of AIDS, I'm so glad she's back) who has a past with randy Russell.

Then there are congressional hearings, a malevolent corporation intent on world domination, a junkie who lives in a bat cave, cell phone leads, assassinations, and headlines proposed and pulled. Let me take a breath, it is a thriller: the power of the press to cure it all inferred and made real, Helen Mirren, reacting with sighs as to what the script requires, hoping, one thinks, that 007 will pop in for a least a proper car chase, colorful reporter sidekicks chasing down leads, tense moments in a parking garage, the most delicious take out order in modern day movies (uneaten by Russell, alas, as another plot twist intrudes), and all in all, "State of Play" speeds by, stimulating if not satisfying.

We all left the theater knowing that good triumphed and evil suffered because the morning edition was hitting the streets with a Watergate-ian scoop even as we gathered our empty popcorn bags.

One can't argue with "State of Play's" topicality on the issues of the week but, there was more imaginative writing, paranoia, menace, and better plot development in this week's Homeland Security assessment than in this theatrical experience.

Someone remarked on the way out that this might be the last newspaper movie ever to be made. Someone else opined that there won't be newspapers to read in a decade.

I wonder if that could be true? An America without hard hitting independent newspapers, newspapers beholden to no one, cold to the charms of the most charming of politicians, free from bias, seekers of truth wherever truth is, unaffected by political correctness, feared by the high and mighty, serving as the voice of the people ... that would be an America to truly be paranoid about.