State of Play Review
It usually takes at least a couple of years for a good journalistic thriller to drip feed out of Hollywood amongst all the dreck that only dip their toes in newsroom shenanigans, with George Clooney’s nostalgic Good Night, and Good Luck perhaps being the last truly worthwhile effort, but last year gave us an extremely promising prospect when lauded documentarian Kevin Macdonald took on the feature film adaptation of Paul Abbott’s State of Play. The director of One Day in September channelling All the President’s Men to adapt one of the most critically praised UK shows this decade? Count me in!
Russell Crowe stars as Cal McCaffrey, an analogue Washington D.C. reporter in an increasingly digital age where newspaper web blogs are leading the way in gossipy scoops. Cal is investigating a double-shooting on the wrong side of town when a huge scandal erupts around one of his oldest friends: congressman Stephen Collins. Collins has been having an affair with one of his aides Sonia Baker, who has supposedly jumped in front of her morning train, causing Collins to break down on air during a public inquiry into the Defense Department’s outsourcing to a private security contractor known as PointCorp. Collins turns to Cal for help, insisting that Sonia’s death was not a suicide, a notion further backed up when Cal discovers a link between one of his double-shooting victims and Sonia Baker. Enlisting the help of his paper’s inexperienced website blogger Della Frye, Cal starts to unravel a corporate conspiracy involving PointCorp’s attempt to take over the privatisation of the Department of Defense that may lead him to Sonia Baker’s killer.
State of Play is an intelligently made, engaging political/journalistic thriller combination that unfortunately suffers from the usual problems of too many plot strands in attempting to fit a 6-hour TV serial into a 2-hour runtime. That’s not to say that Kevin Macdonald has remained slavishly faithful to the original, the setting has been switched to Washington D.C. and the political conspiracy changed to the covert privatisation of national defense, whilst the pressroom side now has a clash of old and new ideals with a newspaper being bought out by a big media conglomerate who pressure editors to treat reporting as a race to get the headlines up first without completely establishing facts. This clash is further bolstered by teaming Cal up with a hot young blogger who has never worked a real case before.
For the most part Macdonald weaves in and out of these multiple plot strands quite skilfully whilst also developing a slightly routine murder-mystery, but with so much going on each strand compromises the screentime of the others, and this results in a certain level of superficiality. This is felt the most in the love-triangle between Cal, Stephen Collins and his wife Anne, which in the film version is left to exposition and suggestion and doesn’t really add much to the dramatics at all and should have been dropped altogether. The finale also descends into boring Hollywood sensationalism with a gunman-on-the-loose scenario and a twist ending that you will suspect is coming from the earliest stages of the film. Nevertheless, State of Play is well performed by the cast - particularly Crowe, who seems to relish the opportunity to put on more than a few pounds of puppy fat and grow his hair out to play a grungy-yet-charismatic reporter, and the screenplay handles the newsroom procedural elements and lengthy dialogue exchanges quite well.
The Disc: Universal releases have a tendency to have a slightly processed, digital sheen to them which for the first 15 minutes or so of this 2.40:1 1080p VC-1 presentation leads to a rather artificial appearance, blacks aren’t very deep and textures just seem a little soft and too pristine, whilst grain is kept down to an extremely light layer. As you settle into the film the image starts to feel more detailed, holding a solid level of fine detail in close ups and generally feeling unsullied by any noise reduction or edge enhancements, while grain remains very light and barely noticeable throughout. To highlight the different worlds that the principal leads live in (Cal the reporter on the streets of Washington and Stephen the congressman up on the hill) Macdonald and DoP Rodrigo Prieto decided to shoot the film in 35mm for the reporter side of things and HDCAM for the political sequences. For the most part they’ve done a pretty good job of matching the two looks to keep the transitions as subtle as possible, but you will notice that the scenes in congress appear sharper and have a slightly flatter colour scheme. The colours in the 35mm sections are very nice and finely balanced while skin tones are pretty natural, in the digital segments skintones appear more “lifelike” and colours a little harsher.
Contrast and brightness levels are obviously going to vary quite a bit when switching between film and digital, but also contrast can look a little high in the newsroom sequences because of the sheer amount of fluorescent lights illuminating the massive set, so you’ll see whites bloom and a starker look in those sequences and the political segments, but otherwise contrast and brightness is pretty consistent and natural. Black levels are noticeably low, and this ties in to my major issue with the transfer: The compression is absolutely horrendous - perhaps the worst I have yet to see on the Blu-ray format. In bright daytime sequences it looks ok - a little banding and blocking here or there maybe, but not really noticeable in motion. Switch to night time or more darkly lit interiors and the image becomes awash with shifting blocks that dance across the screen, not to mention brightness flickering and heavy macro-blocking. The video bit rate averages out to 22.49Mbps and it’s clearly far too low for the loose compression job applied to this film. You can find an example of what I’m talking about in this example, and because a JPG grab on a white webpage up on a PC screen is a terrible way to look at black levels and shadow detail, take a look at the same example with the brightness turned right up so you can really see the nature of the blocking: here.
State of Play is obviously a film driven mostly by dialogue so the English DTS-HD MA 5.1 isn’t going to be pushing your audio set up to the limit, but nevertheless the film sounds very good. Reviewing audio tracks like this is a pretty routine process as it simply ticks all the boxes: solid bass, clear dialogue, strong dynamics, and an expressive soundstage when needed. There are compressed DTS 5.1 tracks for Italian, German, and Spanish dubs respectively, which all sound good – although not as tight as the English DTS-HD track. Naturally the dubbed dialogue in all three sound unnaturally loud in the mix, with the Italian dub coming off the worst and the German dub sounding the most natural.
As ever for a Universal disc, Extra Features are spread across a stand-alone extras menu and the intensely crappy U-Control feature Universal insist on bloating their Blu-rays with. In the extras menu you will find a Making Of featurette and a couple of deleted scenes, which are nothing more than fluff pieces, so you’ll have to go to the U-Control section and turn on the Picture-in-Picture function to view more interview footage with the cast and crew that are taken from the sessions seen on the Making Of. There’s another U-Control function called Washington D.C. Locations which basically comprises of short pop up facts on the various locations in the film, complete with a funky map screen.