SIFF Film Review – The Fourth State

The Fourth State Movie PosterPicking out which movies you are going to watch can be a bit of an adventure. It is easy to sift through the summer blockbusters that have million dollar advertising campaigns, but picking out independent films can be a bit of an art. Usually they have little information available about them—if you get a still image, that’s a victory a lot of the time, and finding something up your alley can be daunting at a festival like SIFF that has over 450 films. Sometimes luck is in your favor, and when you find a solid film it makes it that much more satisfying. That was my experience with The Fourth State.

The story follows German reporter Paul Jensen (Moritz Bleibtreu), who has been brought to Moscow by a family friend to help energize the entertainment section of a local magazine. While working there he meets Katja (Kasia Smutniak), an alluring girl who introduces him firsthand to the conflict between the Russian government and the Chechen. After he witnesses a terrorist attack at a train station, Paul is blamed as being a conspirator and must fight to prove his innocence and discover the real culprit behind the attack.

This has been an interesting year for film, with narrative films that seem like they are almost documentaries, and documentaries that are so incredible they feel like they must be fiction (How to Survive a Plague, for example). That is great, because to me the best thrillers are the ones that blur the lines between reality and fiction, and have more meat than just a clever twist at the end. That is why I find a film like Arachnophobia so unnerving…while it probably isn’t something that would happen, I can’t rule out that it could. The Fourth State is a successful example of this as well, as it uses the Chechen conflict in Russia as a backdrop for the story where both sides are playing dirty. Wars are one of those areas where there is a lot of gray area and morality seems to go out the window; that is something the filmmakers take full advantage of here. While I have no direct connection to the conflict in Chechnya, it has been one of those ongoing conflicts that I’ve witnessed in my life that has left a lasting impression on me. If you have any doubts about the authenticity of a film like this, then you should check out films like the documentary Terror In Moscow, which was about the Moscow theater hostage crisis—then you will see how it adds a depth to the tension that only reality could.

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The film also addresses a couple of the most disconcerting topics in our everyday lives: do we really know everyone around us, and do we know only what people want us to see? As the layers of manipulation are slowly revealed, it becomes clear that there is a thin line between enemies and friends. Since I have my college degree in psychology, this is one of those areas I think about a lot (probably too much). The commentary on this topic is thinly veiled, as Paul’s job is as entertainment reporter to cover the gossip about celebrities and parties, and he is immediately reprimanded for putting anything of substance in his section. These questions are common tropes in film, but are done very effectively here, and as Paul’s world turns upside down, it is hard to know who to trust.

The actors do a good job across the board, making it that much easier to get sucked into the drama. But the standout for me was the cinematography and set decoration, which provided a perfect complement to the Moscow setting of the movie, with the gray skies and muted colors giving a brutal tone for the story. In contrast, it also helps the colors pop more in the beginning, as the Moscow party scene looks that much more amazing.

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As clever and as well executed as the film is, ultimately it is pretty predictable. If you are like me and can’t help but try to solve the mystery as you watch the film, you probably won’t be too surprised. I did appreciate that as the mystery is revealed, Bleibtreu does not become a tough guy…it adds so much more tension by having him just be a regular guy trying to figure his way out of this situation. The action scenes are remarkably well done, since they are supposed to be realistic and not out of some Jason Bourne-style movie—though, realistically, he probably would’ve been killed several times over.

The film isn’t anything that is going to leave a long-lasting impression, but it is a slick thriller that will keep you engaged throughout. If the film does ignite your curiosity on the subject, be prepared, as there is a much scarier world to be found in documentary films.

The Fourth State screens tonight at 9:00 PM at Renton IKEA Performing Arts Center, and Saturday June 2nd at 9:30 and Monday June 4th at 9:45 PM at SIFF Cinema at the Uptown.

Final Grade: B+


Spencer was born and raised in New Mexico. He grew up with the many great films of the 1980’s before having his world rocked after seeing The Usual Suspects. He moved to Washington State to go to the University of Washington, and currently any free time he currently has is split between working on film projects and watching films.

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