State of Play (review)

Paper Chase

I will not compare this to the six-hour British miniseries on which this is based… I will not compare this to the six-hour British miniseries on which this is based… I will not compare this to the six-hour British miniseries on which this is based…

No, sorry, I can’t help it. I tried. But I can’t help it.
I am a profound fan of State of Play, the tele-cinematical crumpet of solemn and fervent entertainmentimacal perfection the BBC offered us in 2003. I don’t think I’ve ever said I’m a “profound” fan of anything before, so you can understand, perhaps, how deeply worried I was about what Hollywood, in its apparent desire to take everything good and smart and riveting and powerful and turn it into mush for morons, was going to do with this.

So I am so glad to be able to say: They didn’t fuck it up. Not by a long shot. In fact, this is probably the best two-hour, 2009 version of that six-hour, 2003 story possible, particularly in light of how much corporate journalism has changed in the last half decade. Even though the original was more about politics and personality than about the newspaper biz, it’s enough about newspaper biz, too, that the changes in corporate journalism almost had to be the focus of a shortened adaptation of that story made today. I mean, trimming a story by two-thirds is inevitably going to mean losing a lot of character stuff, but if it had to be done — and I’m not sure, in fact, that it did have to be done; and I beg you, beg you to watch the British original, which is available on DVD in Region 1 and Region 2 — this was exactly the right way to do it.

And I say all this to emphasize that, if I hadn’t known where this 2009 Hollywood State of Play was generally heading — because the plot is basically the same and the mystery has the same resolution — and if I had been able to prevent myself from constantly comparing it to its source material, I think I’d be even more enthusiastic about it than I already am.

This is what it is (Americanized): A research aide to a congressman heading up a committee investigating the misdeeds of a defense contractor (think: Blackwater) dies under the wheels of a DC subway train. Was it suicide? Was it an accident? Was it murder? Did her boss have something to do with it? The congressman, Stephen Collins, is played by Ben Affleck (Smokin’ Aces, Surviving Christmas), suddenly looking all mature and grownup and adult and when the hell did that happen? His old college roommate is now a hotshot investigative journalist at a big Washington newspaper, and — this ain’t too much of a spoiler — the apparently unrelated story of a professional killing the reporter, Cal McAffrey, is hot on the tail of as the movie opens turns out to be connected to the death of the aide. And Cal is played by Russell Crowe (Body of Lies, American Gangster), with the same sort of forceful, passionate Russell Crowe-ness that has always made him utterly enthralling onscreen.

Funny story: I was once, years ago, fumphering around for a way to describe John Simm, the brilliant British actor I worship with something akin to religious devotion, who played the reporter in 2003, and I came up with this: he’s “at the imaginary intersection of Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, and Ewan McGregor.” Simm and Crowe, though completely different physically, share an onscreen energy and vigor and forcefulness; and while Crowe’s Cal is necessarily but a sketch compared to Simm’s, he is equally compelling… and because even this State of Play is sort of all about Cal, I’m glad to see someone of Crowe’s artistic stature in the role.

See, Cal is old-school. He’s Woodward and Bernstein a generation too late. He has to compete with bloggers like the awesome Rachel McAdams’s (Married Life, The Family Stone) Della Frye — who, as their editor boss Helen Mirren (Inkheart, National Treasure: Book of Secrets) notes, is “hungry… cheap, and she churns out copy by the hour.” Cal, on the other hand, says things like, “I’m a journalist, I’m not a publicist,” which is adorable, given the state of what we call journalism these days. Little think bombs like these punctuate this State of Play — the original was more about the touchy gray areas between friendship and business (the first Cal had been a campaign manager years earlier for his Stephen Collins, a member of Parliament), but this is more about whether real journalism can be done when profit is all and gossip and scandal are what sell and the Internet will scoop whatever story a boots-on-the-ground grunt of a writer can scrape up on the streets when he has to deal with sources and, you know, ethics and stuff.

Yeah, this is still Hollywood. There’s a Hollywood action sequence that’s not exactly out of place, except when you compare it to the original, which was all silent exchanged glances speaking volumes and quiet moments about character that made you ache for them even when you had to acknowledge they were huge assholes. It saddens me deeply to know that most of the people who see this movie — and even most of those who love it — will never know who John Simm is, or who David Morrissey is, who played Collins in 2003, even though they would very likely be wholly absorbed by them.

But I cannot bitch about this new State of Play, much as I was prepared to, even looking forward to doing. It’s exciting and urgent and thrilling. It has a scene featuring Crowe and the always enormously astonishing Viola Davis (Doubt, The Andromeda Strain), as a coroner, together, and that alone is worth the price of admission, and fully comparable to seeing Simm and Morrissey butt creative heads. It is a beautiful and sad fantasy about the last gasp of investigative journalism, which has already passed. I mean, I wouldn’t like to think so, but I suspect it’s true, and this is like All the President’s Men if Watergate had never been exposed and we had to imagine it had been.

I didn’t think it could be true, but director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland, Touching the Void) has shepherded to the screen a very fine edition of a story previously already told superbly well. And I didn’t think it could be true, but something that one writer — Paul Abbott, who also acted as a producer here — was able to pull off for the BBC has been ably served by three new ones: Matthew Michael Carnahan (Lions for Lambs, The Kingdom), Tony Gilroy (Duplicity, Michael Clayton), and Billy Ray (Breach, Flightplan). All these cooks did not spoil this broth. They merely added their own seasonings, set it on a low boil to reduce, and ladled it up to us with elegance and panache.

Who’da thunk it?

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