May 5, 2009 Leave a comment
If my former city of two years, Washington D.C., were as it is portrayed in State of Play, it would be a helluva lot more of an exciting place to live. Although the movie disappoints in many regards, its greatest strength nonetheless is how authentically it captures the fair city, in contrast to the garden variety D.C. political thriller. Sure, we get plenty of overhead shots that are in every D.C. movie, but we also see places like the Southwest fish market and the Americana motel off Jefferson Davis Highway in Arlington, that only D.C. residents and the most intrepid of tourists would recognize.
Gung ho Mt. Pleasanters will have yet another reason to boost their neighborhood seeing that Russell Crowe’s reporter character lives above Heller’s Bakery on Mt. Pleasant Street. Local politicians, U. Street denizens, and Bill Cosby will be thrilled to see Crowe have a reportorial epiphany that appropriately looks like heartburn as he is ordering a chili half smoke at Ben’s Chili Bowl. The filmmakers even give a shout to Ben’s famous list of people who eat free: “Bill Cosby. No one else.” Anyone who has worked or had a Graduate School or LSAT class near L’Enfant Plaza will discover that those lifeless prison-like grid buildings are good for something: a suspenseful sequence in a hospital where the unleashed killer strikes again.
And the film does a commendable job placing characters in their appropriate neighborhoods. Crowe lives in Mt. Pleasant. The young fun-loving female Congressional staffer is seen walking down 18th Street in Adams-Morgan to the Metro right before she is murdered. The merciless ex-military man with associations to a Blackwater-like defense contractor lives in a drab mauve apartment complex in Crystal City. The sleazoid PR guy (Jason Bateman) dines at the Daily Grill in Dupont Circle.
The film also captures a certain tenor of the city that goes beyond the White House and Congress. At the beginning, Russell Crowe, a metro beat reporter for a Washington Post-modeled paper, goes to a crime scene underneath the Whitehurst Freeway in Georgetown and perfunctorily spars with the city’s police chief to get the identity of the victims.
Rachel McAdams’s chirpy political gossip blogger is a pretty nice send-up of the crop of the young people who shape D.C. gossip from their keyboards. Her conflict with old school reporter Crowe, who actually leaves the newsroom to get his stories, is much appreciated by this journalism student as is the ode to newspapers credits sequence.
Bateman’s PR slimeball is perfect, in his striped shirt, slicked hair and showy car. The face-off between him and Crowe is deliciously symbolic: the slick but empty world of PR against the raggedy but penetrating reporter. Crowe indeed is at his disheveled best. As David Denby said, he looks like “a dumpling in a wig”.
It is a shame with all of these familiar scenes and characters that the movie is such a let down in the end. It is “overstuffed,” as one reviewer put it, makes promises that it does not deliver. Perhaps it is a fault of this viewer and others who hoped for an indictment of all of the subjects the film touched on: defense contractors, disingenuous Republican majority leaders (Jeff Daniels), the surface treatment of underreported news stories that today’s news models value, and the dissonance of Washingtonians daytime and after hours selves. Maybe because it is a lot to take on or because former residents like me want a movie about Washington to be an emperor-stripping tour de force or because of the mis-casting of Ben Affleck does this film fail in the end. But I’d like to blame it on the writers. State of Play is nonetheless a perfect love letter to D.C.