State of Play
Originally a BBC mini-series first broadcast in 2003, State of Play was widely regarded as a benchmark for post-9/11 television. A sprawling six-hour mystery sparked by the death of a politician’s aide, the series charted the symbiotic relationship between journalism, politics and big business. No stranger to the dark side of human nature himself, The Last King of Scotland director Kevin Macdonald duly delivers this Americanized remake, cutting down the six hours to just over two, and adding a megawatt injection of star-studded charisma.
Russell Crowe stars as Cal McAffrey, a veteran reporter on a declining D.C. paper tasked to investigate his former college roommate and now Congressmen, Stephen Collins (Affleck), after his aide, who was also his mistress, turns up dead under mysterious circumstances. In an effort to clear his friend, and as a biproduct mend some fences with his old girlfriend, Collin’s wife Anne (Wright Penn), Cal goes to work on the story hoping to put the scandal to bed by uncovering the facts. Assigned to work the juicy, more sordid side of the story is the paper’s online blogger, Della Fry (McAdams), someone Cal looks down his nose at as a professional gossip and faux journalist. Instantly at odds Cal and Fry reluctantly pool their talents and uncover a link to a series of seemingly unrelated killings that lead back to a private military contractor Collins has been working to dismantle through Congressional hearings.
While it all sounds a little dry, the uniformly excellent ensemble (yes, even Ben Affleck) and a script that cleverly disguises the exposition as a series of involving ethical dilemmas save it from ever descending into just another preachy political message movie. In fact as much as it is political, it’s every bit as much a story about the death of journalism and the slow, inevitable fall of the print newspaper industry at a time when tabloid culture and the gossip industry mean more and more concessions to sensationalism at the expense of actual news.
When it comes to Russell Crowe performances these days, there now appears to be a litmus test in that the fatter he is the better he is at acting, and Cal is reassuringly portly. While he is a journalist, he’s a journalist in that Hollywood sense of the word where his apartment is a tip, he seemingly lives off cigarettes and day-old take-away, and while he talks to everyone, he never seems to actually do any work. McAdams too is insufferably bushy tailed like all young lady journalists in movies and the chemistry between the pair is virtually non-existent.
Thankfully the two-handed nature of the investigation means that much of the time they’re kept apart and the rest of the cast do a far better job generating a little spark.
Robin Wright Penn makes excellent work of a stock role as the long-suffering politician’s wife, and together she and Crowe manage to convey a deeper backstory without ever resorting to clumsy info dumping. Best of all is Helen Mirren’s potty-mouthed, blunt instrument editor-in-chief, stealing every scene as she makes a magnificent show out of balancing journalistic integrity with the need to actually sell some newspapers.
While this is a very good, solid, layered political thriller that’s a scattershot toward a wide variety of hot-button political issues (cronyism, lack of oversight, apathy), neither Macdonald nor his players can do anything to counteract that simple fact that this is a six-hour story being told in two. What the mini-series had that this big screen adaptation does not is a slow-burning sense of discovery. With less time to develop, Cal and Collin’s friendship is never quite believable and it’s hard to buy that they’ve managed to stay friends. Jason Bateman’s one sequence as a sleazy PR guru with information to potentially blow the investigation wide open is so out of step it seems beamed in from another film entirely. Similarly, Jeff Daniels’ party elder has only the briefest moment to sketch out a villain shady enough to be worthy of our time.
At a time where more and more films are arriving bloated and overlong, State of Play is ironically a film that could honestly have benefited from an extra 15 to 20 minutes. The simple act of fleshing out some of the fringe players would likely have elevated it from a good film to potentially a great one. A breakneck pace is exactly what you need for a second act, but when applied to all three it’s difficult to buy the big story revelations that come like falling dominoes. Arriving one after the other as they do, it as the cumulative effect of appearing almost as contrivance and, honestly, this film is better than that. Intelligent, well scripted, and possessing a detailed story that invites the viewers to make their own judgments as opposed to waving some pre-packaged ones in our face, State of Play is a clear cut above today’s average political thriller.
Starring: Russell Crowe, Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams, Jeff Daniels, Helen Mirren, Robin Wright Penn, Jason Bateman
Director: Kevin Macdonald
Runtime: 127 Minutes