Remember the days before gossip columns and pap pictures took over the papers?
When hard-nosed exposés made the front page? Old-school Washington Globe reporter Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) does. And he’s not letting those days go without a fight…
Relocating the action from London to DC, Kevin Macdonald bolsters his celluloid remake of the 2003 BBC miniseries with a savvy old-vs-new-media subtext. It is, as the director says in a brief Making Of, a “last hurrah for the power of the press” – championing old fashioned investigative journalism in an age where newspapers are selling out to tittle-tattle to fend off the dreaded www. The real triumph is that Macdonald turns in a storming thriller to boot.
Sporting a shabby mane and a generous paunch, Crowe fills out the role of McAffrey, a seasoned newshound on the case of a suspected gangland shooting. Meanwhile, the Globe’s ambitious young blogger Della Frye (Rachel McAdams) is investigating Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), a congressman whose mistress has apparently committed suicide.
When the two cases are linked by a conspiracy involving a billion-pound player, Cal finds himself not only with a conflict of interest – what with Collins being an old college buddy – but a new partner in Della. Under pressure from the police, their editor (an imposing, sweary Helen Mirren) and the paper’s new corporate backers, the chalk-and-cheese pairing embark on a story that could define both their careers.
Macdonald is no stranger to taut and fraught suspense pieces (The Last King Of Scotland, Touching The Void) and while he exalts his contemporary themes, he looks back to ’70s Hollywood for his style guide.
The murky locations, jittery camerawork and string-laden score evoke the paranoid, post-Nixon thrillers of Alan J Pakula (All The President’s Men, The Parallax View), culminating in the film’s standout sequence: McAffrey playing a claustrophobic game of hide and seek with a military-trained assassin in an underground car park. It’s a palm-moistening set-piece, intensified by the palpable terror on Crowe’s face as he realises he’s followed one lead too far…
It’s also one of many moments that showcase the Aussie actor’s best performance in yonks, putting pay to reservations of rush casting (first choice Brad Pitt dropped out over creative differences).
Crowe’s McAffrey is a stubborn relic of the print media heyday, before the “bloodsuckers and bloggers” took over – you can’t help but wonder whether his cynical conviction is partly fuelled by his own tumultuous experience with the gutter press in recent years.
McAdams’ spirited Della is the perfect contrast to Crowe’s Bob Woodward type – a new media poster girl keen to earn her journo stripes. She may be wary of Cal’s personal connection to the case and shocked by his methods (“Are we cops now? That’s totally illegal!” she protests as her partner plans a clandestine interrogation), but she’s desperate to gain his respect. The feisty veteran/ rookie relationship is made believable thanks to the actors’ spot-on chemistry and, while it doesn’t escape buddymovie cliché, it’s mercifully free of any unnecessary romantic gubbins.
Less successful is the film’s other central relationship, McAffrey and Collins. Separately, they’re fine performances. Affleck flexes range and nuance: impassioned yet vulnerable, privately grieving yet publicly upstanding.
Both actors ensure that the pair’s friendship plays out with the required complexity, too: Crowe’s inner conflict over chasing the story or helping his mate, Affleck’s moving reaction to a coldly delivered revelation by Cal, the pair’s love-rival tension over Mrs Collins (a strong support turn from the ever-reliable Robin Wright Penn).
The trouble is in the casting. Affleck convinces as a rising-star politician and his fresh-faced look provides a nice contrast to his slovenly buddy. But there’s the rub – the idea that he ever shared a dorm with Crowe is just too hard to swallow.
Aside from a credibility-stretching, near decade-long age gap, the laboured sparring of their scenes is shown up by Crowe and McAdams’ effortless double-act. And while Crowe manages to banish all thoughts of Pitt, you can’t helping imagining what original star Edward Norton would have made of Collins…
The cast changes and pre-production wobbles are, perhaps unsurprisingly, left out of the 20-min Making Of (the disc’s sole extra of note, accompanied by a measly four minutes’ worth of deleted scenes). If you can stomach the usual cast and crew backslapping though, it does throw up several points of interest. Crowe looks bored throughout, but Macdonald is a good talker (sadly he hasn’t lent his talent to a chattrack) – touching on his aforementioned ’70s influences, the changes made from the source material and the logistical nightmare of filming in Washington DC. But these anecdotes are all worthy of featurettes in themselves…
The director teases insight, but he never gets to the real story. Maybe he’s holding it for the late edition.
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