State of Play, directed by Kevin Macdonald

State of Play, directed by Kevin Macdonald

State of Play’s pretensions to contemporary relevance break down into a bungled bog-standard retro-romp, finds Tom Jennings

None of the President’s Men. Film review – Tom Jennings
Kevin Macdonald’s passably entertaining State of Play* sees a young likely-lad gunned down in a professional hit, whereupon Cal McCaffrey (Russell Crowe), intrepid chief reporter at The Washington Globe, investigates. Immediately afterwards nearby, a political researcher falls under a commuter train, with her Congressional Committee boss Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck) tearful at an ensuing press conference arousing Monicagate-style tabloid suspicions. However, McCaffrey discovers that his victim phoned the dead woman immediately before the murders – after a bagsnatch yielded surveillance material on her, having obviously tried to flog it back to the killer. So he commandeers the now-merged story, helped enormously by being the Congressman’s old college-buddy. Repelling interference from police, his managers and colleagues and the assassin running amok, he unravels a plot further thickened by revelations that the monolithic private security contractor Collins was probing ran the researcher as a mole – planted, moreover, by his own Party grandee mentor. Touching all the tainted bases of the contemporary military-state-industrial complex, the film thereby neatly fits current ultra-cynical (or, arguably, realistic) Hollywood fashions.
Abandoning increasingly tired international espionage templates, 1970s US conspiracy thrillers exploited greater awareness of high-level hi-jinks among Big Money and Power – with well-meaning reformers, journalists and citizens victimised by government and corporate agencies in The Parallax View (1974), [i]Three Days of the Condor (1975), Winter Kills (1979) and The China Syndrome (1979). Then, after a protracted cinematic truce, Jonathan Demme’s The Manchurian Candidate (2004) conservatively revised John Frankenheimer’s 1962 Cold War mind-boggler, with benign intelligence services and traditionalist politicians now deploying patriotic dirty tricks only against the multinational menace, while John Sayles’ equally transparent anti-Bush sentiment in [i]Silver City (2004) resuscitated countercultural heroics to thwart naked neo-con pollution. And whereas the Bourne series and its ilk pit macho postmodern solipsism against schizophrenic secret-state apparatuses, the more sophisticated Syriana (dir. Stephen Gaghan, 2005) sketches parapolitical convergence among conflicting powerful interests overdetermining apparently insane global events. Yet throughout – however strident the rhetoric – generic resolution looms via public exposure of the evil exceptions infecting otherwise healthy body-politics.
State of Play reproduces clichéd individual corruption despite twisting its tale to also indict the Democratic good guys, whose righteous crusade derails after adopting methods attributed to the other side. Incipient critique is, however, recuperated by displacing dispassionate checks-and-balances onto the independent press – albeit with capacity all-but hamstrung by modern business practices favouring profitable cheap tat like celebrity chitchat and the opinion-peddling bloggery that McCaffrey so derides. But then our film’s low-rent blown conspiracy hardly measures up to its explicit cinematic inspiration – the Washington Post Nixon-busters classically portrayed in All the President’s Men (dir. Alan J. Pakula, 1976), naffly referenced by locations in Watergate and sinister underground carparks. But here the ruling echelons escape scot-free, with even the shocking scoop the screenwriters conjure – a privatised Blackwateresque monopoly of state security – already yesterday’s news. Plus the story was sleuthed by the congressman, not the newshound – thus representing a remarkably tepid testament to the virtues of old-school investigative journalism. In effect, if this is the fourth estate’s best shot, no wonder the sector faces terminal decline.
It’s all the more ironic that the source material for such a disappointing cop-out was so provocatively intelligent. The BBC’s 2003 six-part drama directed by David Yates shattered a similar hiatus in UK intrigue after some doom-laden mid-Thatcher prognostications – sundry Cold War throwbacks, nuclear nightmare in the Edge of Darkness (1983), and A Very British Coup’s (1988) embroidering of Wilson-era aristocrats plotting soft-socialism’s overthrow. Presumably later Tory megasleaze (rather than penny-ante expenses-chiselling) rendered fictitious finessing superfluous, after which Blair’s new deal took time to fester – but Paul Abbott’s State of Play emphatically puts the boot in. His script implicates Cabinet-level machinations arranging the espionage of their own rising-star MP (by the energy lobby), specifically undermining the adversarial posture which simultaneously furnishes the government’s public-interest alibi. The resulting policy stitch-up represents a prescient metaphor for New Labour’s entire neoliberal trajectory, boosting heavyweight economic agendas, socialising risks and privatising profits – disingenuously concealed under vapid spin complemented by the newspaper’s proprietorial Murdoch/Maxwell amalgam riding shotgun. Whereas the film’s lone crooked politico conniving a corporate paymaster’s advantage pales infinitely limply in comparison.
Worse, Macdonald’s cardboard cut-out cast’s sterotypically wooden acting cements a complete lack of believably rounded human intercourse matching entirely unconvincing institutional settings. Conversely, the television series fully incorporates personal biography into political allegory, fleshing out threadbare idealism, compromised loyalty and troubled maturity into fractures and divergences in professional and intimate relationships and ambitions. The intricate social nuances work effortlessly thanks to impeccable dialogue and performances, so that even weaker plot points pass muster – as does the microcosmic contrast of conflict, morale, competition and suspicion in the newsroom and at Westminster. The humble utopian core of Abbott’s vision is his fully-functioning reporting ensemble – representing, at a stretch, any genuine collective of ordinary folk. Diverse skills and flaws meld in their relatively egalitarian endeavour to transcend systemic corruption and collusion characterising an official public realm constitutionally riddled with corrosively alienating manipulative duplicity – the writer’s lack of interest in superhuman saviours and liberal grand narratives of journalism’s lofty nobility palpable in playing its management as farce. Meanwhile, Hollywood’s contempt for honest dirty work – and final clinching evidence of Macdonald’s all-round botch-job – surfaces in Collins’ objection to a privatised military based on its employees only showing ‘loyalty to the pay-packet’. So much for the honour of wage-slaves everywhere – but what on earth does he imagine motivates the low-rank-and-file to enlist in the armed forces in the first place?
*released on DVD on 17th August.
Review first published in Freedom, Vol. 70, No. 12, June 2009.
For other reviews and essays by Tom Jennings, see:
www.variant.org.uk
www.tomjennings.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk