Movie Reviews

State of Play Directed by Kevin Macdonald and Sin Nombre Written and Directed by Cary Fukunaga

Reviews by Tony Sheppard

The news media get a bad rap for assorted reasons. Every major outlet is either too liberal or too conservative, depending on whose eyes are doing the beholding – and regardless of how much one goldilocks (see one’s way around the news channels, the commentators never seem to find one that’s just right. If it’s not perceived bias, then it’s the perception that stories are avoided in order to appease corporate overlords with corporately overlordish ties to the subjects of scandal.

This topic of avoidance surfaces briefly in “State of Play,” in which the Washington Globe’s crack reporter, Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) is chasing down a story that is suitably full of suspicion, politicians, infidelity, and murder. The lead researcher for Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck) falls (or was she pushed!?) under a train while prepping for hearings that Collins’ committee is holding. McAffrey and Collins just happen to have been college roommates, and they lead us on classic whodunit with plenty of interest and a side helping of conflict.  

The action also includes Helen Mirren as McAffrey’s long-suffering editor (“long suffering” being a job requirement for movie newspaper editors), Rachel McAdams as the newspaper’s online blogger, Robin Wright Penn as Collins’ wife, Jeff Daniels as Collins’ party whip, and Jason Bateman as a rather colorful co-conspirator. The cast is as solid as one might expect and if the story suffers, it does so as a result of an apparently obligatory but rather unsuccessful attempt to trick the audience.

“Sin Nombre” is written and directed by Student Academy Award winner Cary Fukunaga, who also won directing honors at Sundance for this film. It tells the powerful story of two young people who are brought together by the worst of circumstances. Sayra (Paulina Gaitan) is traveling from Honduras to the U.S. with her father and uncle. It’s the first time she has seen her father in years. He is leading the family towards an illegal border crossing after his own prior deportation. Willy (Edgar Flores) is a member of a violent Mexican street gang who is targeted by his former gang-mates after a deadly fall from grace. They meet on the roof of a freight train, amidst countless other aspiring undocumented workers.  

But both “State of Play” and “Sin Nombre” are intriguing for other news-oriented reasons. Each tells timely stories in a manner that seems to beat the CNN’s and Fox’s at their own game – and they aren’t alone in doing so. Some of the best coverage of immigration issues in the last year has been in movie theaters (and covered extensively in this column: “The Visitor” and “Under the Same Moon” for example). Topics related to war and resources in the Middle East have also had ample recent screen time from 2007’s documentary of incompetent occupation “No End in Sight” to the surprisingly meaningful “Stop Loss” (2008) from MTV Films.  

The critical force behind the circumstances in “State of Play” is the Blackwater-esque private military contracting firm PointCorp. The parallels are profound, from no-bid/yes-shoot government contracts in warzones, to a massive U.S. training facility, and post-Katrina “security” involvement. This is a story from a powerhouse writing team with all the right subject matter experience: Matthew Michael Carnahan (writer of “Lions for Lambs” and “Kingdom”), Tony Gilroy (writer/director of “Duplicity” and “Michael Clayton” and writer of the Bourne screenplays), and Billy Ray (writer of “Breach” and “Shattered Glass”).  The extent of the power, reach and financial stakes in the contracting world are, not surprisingly, very well articulated.

“Sin Nombre” illustrates at least two current affairs topics remarkably well: The hardships and danger that people are willing to undertake for their chance at an illegal American dream, and the extent and nature of gang culture in Mexico. This is not a neighborhood group of thugs that Willy (or El Casper as he is known on the streets) can escape by running away. This is networked organization that can call ahead hits across vast distances and international borders. It’s as if two great American traditions have been studied, adopted, and combined – gun violence and corporate franchising.

I’ve watched and read many stories about government security contractors and, especially recently, the rise in Mexican gang violence. But we’re a nation in which many people get their news from comedy monologs, movie scripts, and crime shows that play out like last week’s headlines. That may seem like a sad state of affairs. It is reassuring at times to find stories that carry such interesting and powerful messages, whether it be the (very) thinly veiled corporate interests of “State of Play” or the blunt brutality of “Sin Nombre.”

They will, of course, still be filtered through our own political biases, but either way, it’s an interesting week at the movies.

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