DVD Pick: State of Play

Everything about this movie, from the premise, cast and even the poster screamed ‘smart, riveting thriller.’ The nice thing is, it lives up to my expectation, and then some.

This is Russell Crowe’s strongest performance since The Insider 10 years ago. Of course I loved him in Gladiator, but it’s his amazingly credible role as tobacco whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand that truly impressed me. He’s totally robbed of the Oscar that year as his character was far more compelling and heart-wrenching than even the Roman general Maximus.

Besides the remarkable performance, he also resembles his Wigand character in appearance, plump and disheveled as an old-school journalist Cal McCaffrey working for the Washington Globe. In typical Crowe fashion, he was instantly believable in his role the second we see him all shaggy-haired, chomping down his food whilst singing along to the tune of his radio in his ratty old Saab. He’s visiting the crime scene of a shooting the previous night we saw in the opening sequence.

The story begins to unravel with the death of congressman Stephen Collins’ mistress in a subway station. Stephen happens to be Cal McCaffrey’s college buddy. There can’t be more contrast between the two, as the congressman is as glossy and polished as they come. When the press moves in on Stephen as soon as they learn about his affair, he turns to his friend for consolation. Cal immediately suspects the woman’s death wasn’t suicide and embarks on a conspiracy theory involving a corporate giant PointCorp.

But nothing is what it seems as the plot thickens, loaded with whodunit plot twists and turns that demands every second of the viewer’s attention. It’s nice not to have to check your brain at the door when you watch a movie, and be rewarded for it. The suspense and edge-of-your-seat thrills is satisfying without so much of  a bomb explosion and there’s very little blood throughout the entire thing. The swift pace, witty and thought-provoking dialogue, as well as meticulous attention to detail also makes it feel all too real at times. Perhaps the fact that director Kevin MacDonald used to do documentaries might have something to do with that. He then moved on to do The Last King of Scotland that earned Forrest Whittaker his Oscar for playing the role of Idi Amin. Though his specialty is building suspense, MacDonald peppered this movie with humor, too. I like the scene where Stephen shows up at his door and Cal said with a smirk on his face if he were there to retrieve his old CD.

Now, I’m not saying this movie is flawless. In fact, the ending feels a bit rushed and confusing as I was left with quite a few key questions about the plot that I finally found the answers to on IMDB forums. Yet it proves that solid performances and skillful direction still make for a gripping and gratifying thriller. Besides Crowe, the rest of the cast deliver the goods as well. Ben Affleck is quite effective as the congressman and surprisingly credible opposite acting heavyweight like Crowe. Likable Rachel McAdams is pretty good as the young blogger Della Frye who learns an express course in investigative journalism as Cal’s protege (the movie takes a not-too-subtle stab at the world’s obsession with fluff over substance in an increasingly popular blogosphere filled with celebrity gossips and the like). Helen Mirren as the tough-as-nails editor and Robin Wright as Stephen’s wife round up the superb cast. Oh, even Jason Bateman, who seems EVERYWHERE these days, provides comic relief playing a slime-ball and wimpy PR guy. But it’s Crowe that holds up the whole movie in his burly shoulder as the ethically ambiguous truth-fighter.

So I’m definitely thankful Brad Pitt pulled out of this movie, as he’s originally slated to play Cal. Edward Norton reportedly also signed on as Stephen, so as cool as it’d be to see them together again since Fight Club, I’d rather see Crowe in this role, or any role for that matter as I’m not exactly fond of Mr. Jolie.

Based on a BBC drama of the same name that was set in the UK (starring Scottish actor James McAvoy), some reviewers argue that the movie version lacks the character depth. Of course that’s going to be the case because a feature film doesn’t quite have the luxury of time as a miniseries does, so I think screenwriter Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton) does a pretty darn good job adapting this to the big screen. It’s definitely a more sharply-written piece than his previous work Duplicity, which we unwittingly watch a week before this one.

I definitely recommend this movie, it’ll keep you guessing until the very end. It’d have been worth the price of a theater admission, too.