Reviews

State Of Play

4

Great telly becomes a sure-footed thriller…

The BBC’s 2003 six-part drama State Of Play is widely reckoned – and with good reason – to be one of the benchmark TV drama series of the decade.

A dark, complex, street-smart thriller in which politics, journalism and big business swirled together in a toxic maelstrom, it boasted taut scripting from Paul Abbott, sharp, atmospheric direction from David Yates (who’s since gone on to intensive Harry Potter duties) and a crack cast (John Simm, David Morrissey, Kelly Macdonald, Bill Nighy, James McAvoy, Marc Warren, etc) with not a single weak link.

And now we’ve got the Hollywood movie version. If you remember the TV series (as anyone who saw it surely will) it’s inevitable to make comparisons. How do they stand up against each other?

Well, for a start the shift in venue from London to Washington DC has done the story no harm at all. Both are cities where private and public affairs dangerously intersect, where a hungry press lies in wait and a ripe scandal can spread like a virus leaking from a petri dish, and where politicians and businessmen are way deeper in each other’s pockets than is good for the rest of us.

The movie version’s MacGuffin works even better. On TV it was the manoeuvrings of a big oil company to avoid a clobbering on environmental grounds; on film it’s a bid by a huge, tentacular private security company called Pointcorps (think Halliburton or Bechtel) for a multi-billion-dollar contract to take over the running of Homeland Security. Which, in the wake of Iraq and what one character refers to as “the Muslim terror goldrush”, rings all too true.

As you’d expect, boiling down the action from six hours to two means that some of the intricacies and subplots have gone missing – but surprisingly little’s been lost that mars the narrative structure. The story’s essentially the same: when a researcher working for a rising young politico dies, seemingly accidentally, the press quickly sniff out that their relationship was more than professional. But then a reporter, an old friend of the politician, realises that the shooting of a young black man on the same day somehow ties in, and gradually exposes a murky tangle of skulduggery and murder where no one’s motives are what they seem.

Directing, Kevin Macdonald fulfils the promise of his feature debut The Last King Of Scotland, setting a gripping pace right from the off and negotiating the twisty slaloms of the plot with a sure touch.

But – you knew there was a ‘but’ coming, didn’t you? – in transposing the drama from small screen to big, something’s been added to the mix; and that something is cliché. It’s partly in the scripting. Where Paul Abbott wrote the TV series single-handed, three screenwriters have been brought in for the movie makeover – and although one of them, Tony Gilroy, has serious form (the Bourne trilogy and Michael Clayton), much of the dialogue has that committee-job feeling where everything has to be spelt out for any dummies in the popcorn seats. So we get people spouting lines like, “Now you have blood on your hands,” or (just to make quite sure we’re getting it), “This is as big and connected as they get.”

Ditto the characters. They’re all just that little bit broader, that tiny bit closer to Central Casting. Russell Crowe’s Cal McAffrey (the reporter role played on TV by John Simm) is overweight and slobby, with greasy lank hair; in other words, the star reporter gone to seed but retaining an edge of integrity beneath the cynical façade. Met him before? Mm-hm. Rachel McAdams, as his junior sidekick Della, is cute and perky the way young girl reporters must always be – and that Kelly Macdonald never was. And so on.

None of the acting is bad – even Ben Affleck as the flawed politico is way better than usual – but the roles do verge on stereotype. As do some of the situations. When Cal is hunted by a ruthless hitman, it’s in an underground car park – because, as we know from a thousand thrillers, underground car-parks are sinister places where bad things happen. And though we’re thankfully spared a love scene between Cal and Della, we still have to see them leave hand-in-hand in the final shot.

Despite its limitations, though, this is still a worthy entry in the genre. It’s pacy and gripping, with outstanding production values, and it retains the original’s healthily cynical take on the powers that be, while serving as a reminder in these wobbly times of the need for a robust press to keep corporate and government sleaze in check.

In the final analysis, for anyone who’s seen the TV series, the movie won’t snag your mind and linger there in the same way. But for everyone else, this will reach all the places that a skillful, effective political thriller should.

Philip Kemp

Verdict:

A twisty substantial thriller, faithfully adapted from a standout BBC mini-series. It’s not as exceptional as its source but the changes implemented mostly enhance rather than harm the story.

Film Details

User Reviews

    • joker16

      Apr 19th 2009, 1:48

      4

      Great movie. All of the actors do a superb job, as well as some of the smaller performances like Jason Bateman's and Jeff Daniels. I definitely see an oscar nod for best adapted screenplay and editing.

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    • justbrett

      Apr 22nd 2009, 20:06

      I'm really looking forward to see this movie ever since I saw the trailer on TV (you can watch it at http://displacedbrett.wordpress.com/2009/04/21/state-of-play/) Hate Affleck, but I think this might actually be a good role for him. Russell Crowe almost always delivers. Also, the trailer has a great song, "Unstoppable" by Minutes Til Midnight that does a great job of setting the mood. So yah, personally I'm way excited for this film.

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    • justbrett

      Apr 22nd 2009, 20:07

      4

      I'm really looking forward to see this movie ever since I saw the trailer on TV (you can watch it at http://displacedbrett.wordpress.com/2009/04/21/state-of-play/) Hate Affleck, but I think this might actually be a good role for him. Russell Crowe almost always delivers. Also, the trailer has a great song, "Unstoppable" by Minutes Til Midnight that does a great job of setting the mood. So yah, personally I'm way excited for this film, I'll give it a 4 for my expectations.

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    • graham6

      Apr 27th 2009, 18:43

      4

      This is a fantastic, classy conspiracy thriller. The whole cast are brilliant, although Rachel McAdams and Russell Crowe stand out. Edge of your seat, complex and very faithful to the TV series.

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    • CatSchrodinger

      May 2nd 2009, 4:23

      4

      Didn't catch the original when it was on the beeb, but I saw this yesterday and thought it was very well done - even managed to stomach Affleck, which is a first. Crowe fit the role, despite last-minute casting - I think the point about that stereotype was to suggest there might still be some old-school journos out there. The word that kept springing to mind throughout was 'class'.

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    • graham6

      May 11th 2009, 23:55

      4

      This is excellent, but they should have waited until Oscar season (or have brought the release date forward) as the script is oscar worthy, and it's limiting its chance of winning. Shame, as this is very good.

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    • duncan1964

      May 15th 2009, 14:08

      4

      Excellent, intelligent and well acted political thriller. Affleck is the politician whos life is thrown into turmoil when his researcher is murdered, and Crowe the journalist trying to find the truth. Stays re,arkably faithful to the (only slightly) superior BBC series

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    • Nealsreviews1

      May 18th 2009, 18:51

      4

      The political thriller State Of Play is one for the time capsule, a homage to print journalism that is being released at a time when newspapers are gliding into obscurity. It feels like a political thriller on a certain level but superficially it is the murder of a young woman. A rising congressman's mistress that drives the story. Russell Crowe plays Cal McAffrey who represents the last of the old school journalists & also happens to be good friends with the politician in question, Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck). Cal's & the congressman's shady interests are revealed when the police & the Washington Post investigate the killing. Crowe completely delves into the character, however he & Affleck never feel like a good match for each other. For one the age difference is hard to ignore to believe they're college roomates. Second the chemistry never seems to blend. Neal Damiano Film Critic

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    • HarryMulholland

      May 18th 2009, 19:21

      4

      An interesting and sophisticated remake and like most remakes the original is the superior of the two. It has its flaws and its perks, but all in all it's a solid film.

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