State of Play – Russell Crowe certainly delivers, but does the Blu-ray?

State of Play flew under the radar in theaters, and the less you know about the film, the better. It’s a deft political thriller, that makes a lot of poignant observations about modern journalism, which also happens to be an entertaining film. And for Blu-ray enthusiasts, it also happens to be a gorgeous movie.

State of Play is a film adaptation of the BBC serial of the same name, but there has never been a more relevant film on the state of print journalism for Americans.

As dozens of institutions close their doors due to the economic crisis and plummeting readership, the film brings up a discussion about the blurring lines of journalism as we head into a new media world.

And the good news is all of this is put together in a very slick package, with great production values on a pretty good Blu-ray.

Storytelling: 4/5

State of Play is a pretty intense political thriller, kicked off by the apparent suicide of a congressional aide to Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck) that visibly hits him hard. In the now 24/7 news cycle, this act of emotion naturally raises suspicion, confirmed to his friend – and veteran journalist – Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe).

Collins admits to having an affair with the aide, and questions the suicide, citing her behavior the day of her death.

The film naturally progresses to a “whodunit” as Cal attempts to solve the mystery of not only the aide’s death, but possibly other murders connected to Collins. Director Kevin MacDonald expertly throws the audiences for a loop (or two) using a clever script, but the effort ultimately falls victim to genre fatigue near the end of its running time.

What separates the film from the pack is the humanistic quality of its characters; everyone is believable, and they all have flaws. Nobody’s hands are clean in State of Play, and the film is very much about compromise.

Cal’s colleague, Della (played by the lovely Rachel McAdams), is a stark contrast his conceit of journalistic integrity. The struggle for a new generation to juggle ambition and journalistic integrity is interwoven into the film, bluntly depicting print journalism as an ailing dinosaur.

The film also brushes the subject of paramilitary contractors, and their power in the political corridors of Washington, which happens to be an untapped source for screenwriters at the moment. America seems to be on the cusp of a public backlash to contractors, and in that case, screenwriters Matthew Carnahan, Tony Gilroy and Billy Ray are ahead of the curve.

State of Play is an intricate thriller, with a lot going on at any given time. It combines politics, with the business of journalism, paramilitary contractors, bloggers and more. Under a less guided hand, it might have been a mess. When ever you take six-part miniseries and condense it into a feature length film, there has to be a great deal of discipline.

Or else it doesn’t work.

But – hey! – it does work. And to MacDonald’s credit, he’s able to pull out terrific performances from his principles, which includes a cast of Academy darlings (Crowe, Affleck, McAdams, Helen Mirren, Robin Wright Penn, etc.). Crowe and Affleck really sell the thing, both creating compelling characters that are multi-layered and don’t heavily rely on stereotypes.

And while the film falls short near the end, it does not collapse under its own weight. Its a meaty adaptation; one that succeeds in being an entertaining thriller, propelled by excellent performances perhaps overlooked in theaters.

Video: 5/5

State of Play looks gorgeous. The 2.35:1 aspect ratio, 1080p production has benefited from a transfer that feels almost flawless. The rich color palette perfectly captures the atmosphere of Washington (my hometown!), and the clarity of the picture is beautiful.

It really enhances excellent set design, especially in Cal’s newspaper office, where every scrap of paper is visible. Even outside the print confines, in actual locales across the nation’s capital, the backgrounds and ancillary props really punch.

It goes without saying that the filmmakers benefit immensely from shooting living, breathing establishments within the Washington area. As a resident of the metropolitan area, it’s easy to spot familiar settings (like the Rosslyn Metro Station), that enhance the atmosphere and bring real texture to the production design.

Grain is almost non-existent, as is noise reduction or any of the major offenders from mediocre transfers. This is as about as good as a Blu-ray can look, with no glaring flaws to speak of.

Audio: 4/5

State of Play serves up a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track, with a very nuanced sound mix for a dialogue-heavy film. That’s not to say there aren’t any sound effects, as chunks of the film feature chases and gunfire – all great stuff for surround sound systems.

The vocal stuff sounds great, and you won’t get any complaints on the sound design. The crew excels in imbuing every set with realistic background audio, and it really helps to pull you in. The gritty town of Washington D.C. gets the audio mix it deserves.

The score by Alex Heffes won’t win any awards, but it’s not terrible, and it sounds sharp.

The only real knock is the lack of dynamic directional audio, but it’s a small misstep in an otherwise solid audio presentation.

Package: 3/5

State of Play comes on a BD-50 disc as a single disc set, with a standard blue case and one sheet poster artwork scaled for home release. The lack of a digital copy might irk some, but is not a deal breaker.

The Blu-ray has a decent set of supplemental material, including delete scenes, U-Control, a making of featurette and BD Live support.

The deleted scenes (all two of them) are rather short and unrevealing, and feel kind of tacked on if anything. U-Control has some great Picture-in-Picture stuff, elaborating on various aspects of production concurrently with the film.

The neatest U-Control feature deals with Washington D.C., and offers information and Google Earth pictures of locations shot for the film. As a native, it’s pretty neat, but I’d imagine it’d be even more informative to those who have not frequented America’s capital.

The making of featurette is nothing special, and actually features some of the same information from the U-Control commentary. The other knock is a noticeable lack of audio commentary, or any type of actual commentary on the relevant subject matter brought up by the film.

Boosted by BD Live support, it’s an adequate set of bonus material, but nothing to rave about.

Bias:

As a fan of the director and the myriad of writers involved, State of Play was one of those films that I overlooked in theaters. And going by the numbers, a number of other people did too.

During my college years, my favorite subject was journalism. I’ve toured the offices of The Washington Post, written for its local subsidiary and have studied its history extensively.

I still speak to my journalism professor to this day.

So as a political thriller, State of Play is engrossing, but as a marker for the end of print journalism, it really hits home. In reality, it’s depressing to see the likes of The Boston Globe and The San Francisco Chronicle possibly squeezed out by bloggers and media outlets. Or faced with popular opinion that objective journalism and integrity is eroding under ratings and money.

State of Play feels kind of like it exists in a world on the brink of armageddon, except its world is journalism.

I never had the benefit of watching the critically acclaimed BBC serial, so I got to approach the film with a set of fresh eyes. Without the baggage of the source material, I can objectively say it is a very well produced adaptation.

The task of adapting a six hour miniseries into a feature length film must have been nothing short of daunting, but the crew do so with remarkable discipline.

The end result is an entertaining film, that falters as it nears the finish line.

The presentation is ace, but the supplemental material is standard. It is not an amazing film, nor a poor one. So unless you’re a Blu-ray completest, it’s tough to recommend this as a purchase.

But it is definitely worth a peek.

Verdict: 3/5 – “RENT”

 

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