Friday, April 17, 2009

"State of Play": Washington DC thriller based on BBC: a good look at journalism?


Scottish director Kevin MacDonald along with writers Matthew Michael Carahan, Tony Gilroy and Billy Ray had adapted the concept of a BBC television series (Paul Abbott) to create a domestic political thriller, “State of Play”, from Universal and Working Title.

On the surface, the setup – the mysterious death of a mistress of a congressman Stephen Collins (a slick-backed Ben Affleck) sounds a bit like the Condit affair of 2001 – but that has been solved as totally unrelated to the Congressman and so this story takes a different tack completely.

The other part is the world of the press: reporter Cal McAffrey (a hippy-looking Russell Crowe), blogger Della Frye (Rachel McAdams) and the boss lady Cameron Lynne (Helen Mirren). The fictitious paper is the Washington Globe (although the story sounds like something the real Washington Times would go after), but the New York Post and C-Span appear in the film as real. Cal’s cubicle is the most cluttered workplace ever seen (even compared to mine when I worked in IT). He complains that the paper blogger Della has it better – but the story would actually even be more provocative if Della were a totally independent blogger. As it is, it seems like a collaboration of convenience. But, as the story develops, real "ethical" issues for journalists (including the shield issue) arise, and the relationships among the congressman and the journalist become complex (they had been college roommates) and more than utilitarian. Media-employed bloggers are more likely to have access to direct sources than independents (like me), so I do wonder how the change I suggest would play out.

The movie also deals with the notion of "privatization" of Homeland Security, an idea that I have explored in my own writings. In the movies, ex-military are being hired by one particular fictitious company (PointCorp) to run things and benefit from catastrophes. In my own fiction scenarios, a secret right-wing cabal runs an "Academy" to "re-educate" certain kinds of people before a takeover. (One of my own favorite proverbs or "inevitable epigrams" is "There is no They".)

The locations around Washington DC look truer than in many movies – even Ben’s Chili Bowl on U Street. The Metro figures into the story in a critical way (and it reminded me of the indie thriller “Five Lines”). The story gathers steam (the parking garage escape is conventional) and does throw a twist at the end, although it unfolds more slowly than the trailers make you think. There is also the sniper Bingham (Michael Berresse) who fought with Collins in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, and was said as someone not to share a foxhole with (although the meaning is not what I first thought (DADT)).

Affleck’s performance is gaunt and reserved – he is not the robust young man of “Forces of Nature.” You wonder if Matt could have played to reporter – no, Russell Crowe seems to have the right scruffiness.

Several local Washington DC television reporters make cameos in the film.

I remember that Affleck had a really grating line as a professor in "The Sum of All Fears" -- "you've gotten some really bad information..."

I think that the story bears some resemblance to John Grisham's novel "The Pelican Brief" which became a (Warner Brothers) film in 1993 by Alan J. Pakula, with Denzel Washington (as investigative journalist Gray Grantham) and Julia Roberts (as the law student).

Picture above: Lincoln Theater and Ben's Chili Bowl, U St, Washington DC (taken by me, Jan. 2008); Reel Affirmations is held largely in the Lincoln Theater. President Obama has visited the Chili Bowl.

Picture below: homeless populate areas in and near Metro stations, even in suburbs

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