May 1, 2009

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Twists are cliché. So is calling them a double-edged sword, but that’s what they are. Anyone witness to recent horror flicks can attest to how a plot’s jumping the shark can drive one out of the movie theater, wishing the mind could have been wiped blank after the good stuff. But sometimes a twist is masterful, and can subvert the audience’s interpretation of everything they had seen before, changing every future re-viewing of a work while never matching that initial feeling of suspension and enthrallment. Like The Sixth Sense. Not like Hancock. Ever.
Director Kevin MacDonald (The Last King of Scotland) knows the dangerous of the sudden turn, and yet has decided to embark on a convoluted thrill ride of a film with State of Play. The film boasts a typical government-thriller title, but what enfolds is a far better than typical espionage-subterfuge chase through the underworld of D.C., where journalism and politics clash silently yet violently in the dark of the public.
Russell Crowe and Ben Affleck play Washington Globe reporter Cal McAffrey and Congressman Stephen Collins, respectably, mortal enemies as far as the relation of press and politicians in our nation’s capital (or anywhere else for that matter), but good friends and old college roommates in private. Cal is an analog reporter in a digital blogosphere of instant information. He likes the feel of newsprint and the smell of ink. He seeks out truth, juicy stories and both sides of each. Collins is waging a private war against PointCorp, the film’s version of a private military contractor similar to Blackwater. The two rarely speak anymore, and there may be an old love triangle between the two men and Collins’ wife, played by Robin Wright Penn.
How do these two men meet again, as the plot requires it must? Congressman Collins’ aide dies in a subway accident. Is it suicide? Is she murdered? When the world catches wind of Collins’ visible distress over her death at a press conference, the assumptions begin to fly. Was she his mistress? Oh, she was? Ooh, scandalous! Will this ruin Collins’ credibility in his tirade against PointCorp, a corporation so extensive and ambitious that it seeks to privatize homeland security (read: imagine Blackwater taking over and guarding Main Street like Baghdad on a bad day)? The plot thickens, and not a moment too soon.
At this point, State of Play sets itself up to be a boring, predictable, convoluted chase thriller. The problems with movies in this genre are numerous, but the greatest are pacing and predictability. The opening scene here mimics Enemy of the State. A man is running for his life, only to be gunned down by a mysterious assassin, who then shoots an escaping witness, who survives. That story gets put on hold. Now the possibility of a murder / suicide and political sabotage are in the mix, and who can the audience expect to solve the mystery, one step ahead of the cops? Why, it’s Cal!
Except it’s not. State of Play escapes the pit of doom it appears to be sliding towards by introducing a few key characters that create the feeling of a film and not just a popcorn thriller. Della Frye (the ever-surprising Rachel McAdams) is the first to break news of the scandal. She’s a 20-something blogger, cute as a button, hungry for success, primed to ooze gossip at the first opportunity and the very antithesis of Cal’s steady hand at old school of hardcore reporting. Bearing on them both is Cameron Lynne (Helen Mirren), the editor, brutally concerned with sales and keeping the Globe on the edge of the scoop. Are they allies or adversaries, sidekicks or obstacles? Cal can’t decide to work with or in spite of Della. He’s an old friend with Cameron, the trusty print journalist, but this mess is straining their last few tenuous toothpicks of good faith. Watch out for insidious and powerful cameo performances by virtuosos like Jeff Daniels (when will he earn his damned honorary Oscar?) and Viola Davis.
When Cal meets a homeless girl that connects the opening assassination to the murder / suicide of Collins’ aide, to the assassin, to PointCorp, to the surviving witness to … it’s impossible to keep track. And the cops and reporters are concealing information. Can we trust Cal, who keeps doe-eyeing Mrs. Collins? Can we trust Della, who wants so badly to be taken seriously, her fingers itching to blog every detail? Can we trust Collins, a smarmy politician? How about Cameron, the editor, more focused on breaking news even than uncovering the truth, than preserving integrity? Who can we trust? The assassin? The murdered aide? The homeless girl?
When the film runs its course, and the veils are truly lifted, the revelation is satisfactory. The “conspiracy” doesn’t feel contrived. Plot holes tighten and seal, instead of engulfing the picture entirely. A quiet murmur falls over the cinema audience, as the depths of human irresponsibility are mined, possibly salvaged. Paranoia over a large, easily demonized, faceless enemy is pulled back to reveal betrayal by the selfishness capable by each and every one of us. That, friends, is the difference between a good twist and a bad twist.