State of Play is an all star two hour movie based on a popular six hour British miniseries. It’s not unheard of for films to be inspired by television serials, Brideshead Revisited is a recent example, but usually it’s the other way round. Remember The Shining miniseries that riffed on the Stanley Kubrick film? Or how about Traffic: The Miniseries? The question State of Play raises is how can director Kevin The Last King of Scotland Macdonald convey the miniseries’s six hours of intrigue, tension, detail and dazzling complexity of plot in just 120 minutes?
The trick he’s tried to pull off is to condense and change certain aspects of the original 6-part program while maintaining the integrity of the story. Fans of the miniseries will be relieved to hear that he has retained most of the main characters and much of the plot, but may be less enthusiastic that he’s switched the location from Britain to the United States.
The film tells of Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) a dogged Washington Post journalist investigating the suspicious death of the mistress of his old college roommate, Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck). Collins is a rising star in his party (the movie doesn’t make it clear which); a seemingly incorruptible politician fighting against a multi-billion dollar deal to privatize homeland security by Pointcorps (think Halliburton). Torn between his responsibilities as a journalist and his loyalty to his friend Cal must find the correct angle with which to cover the story. As he digs deeper, with the support of his testy editor Cameron Lynne (Oscar-winner Helen Mirren) and fellow reporter Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), he becomes involved in a massive and dangerous cover-up. “It’s not a story. It’s a case,” says Det. Donald Bell (Harry Lennix) as the action heats up.
State of Play does a good job of boiling the six hour miniseries down to it bare essentials. Director MacDonald keeps the pacing tight and presents enough plot twists and turns to keep fans of the longer version satisfied. Less pleasing is the introduction of clichéd, hardboiled reporter dialogue. If you took a drink of “Irish wine”—that’s the Jamesons that Cal drinks throughout—every time a character said something like, “Now you have blood on your hands!” you’d be drunker than Hunter S. Thompson in the depths of a three day Chivas binge, but that is a small quibble when the action and suspense are this good.
State of Play is informed by the films of the 1970s like All the Presidents Men and Capricorn One, movies that exalted the fourth estate, exploring journalistic independence and the sometimes tenuous relationship between politicians and the press. It’s an ode to journalism and the fading art of newspaper reporting. As newspapers watch their circulation nosedive and newsrooms slash budgets it’s interesting to get a glimpse into a world where the public’s right to know is paramount, no matter what the cost or circumstances.
At the center of this old school approach is Crowe’s character Cal who has all the qualities legendary journalist Gay Talese says all top reporters must possess: the ability to pry “into other people’s affairs, [chase] after information [and wait] outside the doors of private meetings for official statements.” He’s the kind of intrepid reporter who only actually exists in the movies but Crowe pulls it off, creating a real character out of a pile of newsman clichés.
State of Play is a fast-paced thriller—with a scene stealing performance from Justin Bateman—that harkens back to the grand old days of investigative reporter movies like The China Syndrome which mixed complex, compelling stories with action and suspense.