Sex, lies and privatised war

June 21, 2009

State of Play

Directed by Kevin Macdonald

Written by Matthew Michael Carnahan and Tony Gilroy

With Russell Crowe, Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams, Robin Wright Penn, Helen Mirren

In cinemas

State of Play is a taut political thriller whose fictional events spin around a very real facet of the modern US corporate system — the growing role of mercenaries in war.

Superbly acted, skilfully directed and well-paced, this is an adaptation of a BBC TV series in which the bad guys have shifted from oil industry interests in bed with the British government to a "private security company" providing mercenary services to the US government.

Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), is a congressperson heading up a politically explosive investigation into private security company PointCorp.

PointCorp has lucrative contracts with the government to provide highly trained former US Army soldiers to do the government's dirty work in its overseas adventures.

However, things go pear-shaped when his lead researcher on the investigation, Sonia, turns up dead. It is revealed she was having an affair with the married Collins.

The media pounce on the scandal and Collins's career hangs by a thread.

The scandal threatens to derail his investigation. A party leader advises Collins to lay low and say nothing until the scandal blows over.

Collins can't stay quiet, however. In the hearings, he goes for PointCorp's throat for turning war into a private profit-making exercise.

Investigative journalist Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe), who works for the Washington Globe, gets drawn into the story surrounding Sonia's death despite an initial reluctance. He is working on an apparently unconnected story about two seemingly drug-related shootings, but soon uncovers links between the two cases.

The more evidence is uncovered, the more it points to dirty play by PointCorp — seeking to bring down Collins to protect its lucrative government contracts.

McAffrey is old school. He drives a bombed-out old car, listens to Irish folk songs about drinking and is disdainful of new-style "blogging journalists". He uses a 16-year-old computer, drinks whiskey ("Irish wine") and lives and works among the clutter of paper. He would fit in well at Green Left Weekly.

He would also run the risk of being a cliche if not for the edgy tension Crowe brings to the role.

McAffrey initially dismisses Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), a young journalist running a "Capitol Hill" blog who seeks information from him on Collins. They end up working together, and as the story unfolds they develop a good working relationship.

The quality of the writing and acting make this somewhat predictable character development flow naturally.

McAffrey is also an old friend of Collins, having shared a room with him at college. The two have had a falling out in the past, but Collins nonetheless comes to him as a friend for help.

It emerges that a potential source of their falling out is that McAffrey had an affair in with Collins's wife, Anne (Robin Wright Penn).

The media are reporting Sonia's death as a suicide, but Collins has reason not to believe it. McAffrey decides to investigate.

McAffrey finds a PointCorp source willing to speak off the record. The source reveals just how much is at stake — tens of billions of dollars more than it first appeared.

The real money isn't in Iraq and Afghanistan, but in the "privatisation of homeland security". PointCorp stands to monopolise government contracts for spying on its citizens and other "security" work.

The source says PointCorp was sent into New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina with orders to shoot down US citizens to maintain order.

This mimics real life, with mercenaries, in their tens of thousands, increasingly playing a leading role as private guns-for-hire in occupied Iraq.

Mercenary company Blackwater is the largest private security contractor for the US State Department. At least 90% of Blackwater's revenue comes from government contracts, of which two-thirds are no-bid contracts, a July 2006 PilotOnline article said.

Blackwater's services were also bought by the US government to provide "security" in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, US news service Democracy Now revealed in September 2005.

There has also been a congressional hearing into the awarding of government contracts to Blackwater to operate in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In the film, the source tells McAffrey: "It's the Muslim terror gold rush."

And Blackwa…, sorry PointCorp, will do whatever it takes to protect its interests, says the source. What's more, it has a handy batch of military-trained killers as employees.

The plot avoids a common trend in modern thrillers — piling one twist upon another.

If the audience expects a new twist every five minutes that will turn everything they think they know about the characters on its head, then there is a tendency to keep a distance. The audience needs to feel they can trust the story and the characters enough to care.

Twists work when audiences have invested in the story and the characters, making sudden revelations genuinely unsettling.

The tension and drama in State of Play builds as much from the complex personal relationships of the characters as the high-stakes power plays.

The complicated history to the triangle of Stephen and Anne Collins and McAffrey is one part.

There is also the pressure on McAffrey and Frye from Globe editor Cameron Lynne (Helen Mirren). She is being pressured herself by the paper's new corporate bosses determined to somehow turn a profit from a print paper.

This means pressure to report the story from the most sordid tabloid angle and downplaying any aspect that risks upsetting powerful interests.

Questions of morality in the search for the story are a constant throughout. Evidence is withheld from police, a source is secretly recorded and McAffrey manipulates his friendship with Collins in the interests of advancing the story.

The story is as much about the drama of the individual characters as about the bigger political issues of immoral corporate mercenaries profiting from war. In some ways, art tackles politics best in these circumstances — when it is part of the backdrop, the framework in which individuals exist and act.

That is how it is in real life — a constant factor as everyday life goes on.

There are twists in the tale — right up until the end. But they are well-paced and develop in tandem with other elements of the story.

It is also genuinely tense.

Perhaps one criticism is of a certain romanticism of McAffrey. In the corporate media, dedicated journos seeking the truth at all costs have always been few and far between — and now are definitely an endangered species. Still, every thriller needs its good guy, and McAffrey is complicated and compromised enough to make it work.

This is a well-made tale of corporate power, politics and the media, interwoven with complex personal relationships.

The persistent popularity of thrillers about the evils of corporate power is also a heartening reminder of the fundamental distrust working people have for the motives and actions of the ruling class.

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