State of Play (United States/United Kingdom, 2009)April 15, 2009
The three screenwriters (Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gilroy, Billy Ray) credited with adapting Paul Abbott's mini-series into a motion picture have done something remarkable: reduce five hours of material into less than two hours and still produce something that is both coherent and engrossing. There's no question that State of Play feels a little rushed and the density of plot can be daunting, but the resulting tale unfolds with an urgency and sense of verisimilitude that will keep most viewers intrigued and involved without losing many along the way.
The BBC mini-series was set in London and starred the likes of John Simm, Kelly Macdonald, David Morrissey, and Bill Nighy. The motion picture has transferred the setting to Washington D.C. but kept many of the basic particulars the same. Ben Affleck plays Congressman Stephen Collins, a representative from Pennsylvania's 7th District (Philadelphia's south and west suburbs) who is the chairman of a committee reviewing whether Pointcorp should be used to "outsource homeland security." An unflattering spotlight falls upon Collins when his chief researcher apparently commits suicide and, in the wake of her death, it is revealed that Collins was having an affair with her. In private, Collins maintains that this was not a case of suicide, but either an accidental death or a murder.
His best friend, journalist Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe), is a top dog at the Washington Globe. McAffrey is investigating a homicide when clues lead him to believe the two stories could be connected. Backed by his ferocious editor, Cameron Lynne (Helen Mirren), and partnered with blogger Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), McAffrey begins to pry into areas that are not good for his health. Soon, he believes he has uncovered a massive corporate conspiracy perpetrated by Pointcorp with the goal of monopolizing the privatization of segments of the United States' armed forces. The evidence points to the real goal being the discrediting of Collins, with the associated deaths being "collateral damage." With the crusading Collins out of the way, Pointcorp's route to government approval would be unbarred. Meanwhile, McAffrey's involvement is complicated not only by his friendship with Collins but by a past indiscretion with Collins' wife, Anne (Robin Wright Penn).
By positioning an investigative journalist in the protagonist's role, State of Play achieves an old-fashioned feel (there was a time when many TV shows and films of this variety featured such characters) while also allowing the filmmakers to comment upon the current state of the print business. (The film started production long before the rash of newspaper bankruptcies began.) Helen Mirren's character is caught square in the crosshairs: the Globe must make money or perish, and all other considerations - including fact-checking stories and holding headlines until all the details are uncovered - are secondary. Things were never like this for Woodward and Bernstein in All the President's Men.
State of Play is so plot-heavy that there's not much time for character development. Conversations are generally used for exposition with relationship building as a secondary concern. Nevertheless, in part because of strong performances by the leads, we develop a rooting interest in McAffrey, Collins, and Frye. Ultimately, however, the film is less about the people than about the web they are uncovering. Although there are sequences in which McAffrey and Frye find their lives in danger, their personal jeopardy is incorporated to keep the story from becoming too cerebral and distanced. The reason the perhaps-expected romance between McAffrey and Frye does not happen can be attributed largely to time constraints. State of Play has no room to accommodate a romance (unless one counts the ashes of the relationship between McAffrey and Anne).
Like most thrillers, the resolution is not straightforward but the means by which the final "twist" is uncovered (it has something to do with a character misspeaking and revealing information that he/she should not have been in possession of ) is more clichéd than one would expect from a screenplay that is otherwise written on a high level. I couldn't help being a little disappointed that such a stock B-movie staple would make an appearance in that context; it's as convenient and contrived as when Cate Blanchett went rummaging through the trash in Notes on a Scandal. This sort of device, which is not uncommon in mystery-thrillers, bothers me more when it's used in an otherwise intelligent movie like this than when it's one trashy element among many.
State of Play's pedigree is unquestionable. The director, Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland), is a rising luminary in both British and American cinema. Tony Gilroy, who has been writing screenplays since 1992's The Cutting Edge and has a string of recent thrillers to his credit (including Duplicity, which he also directed), is as close to a "can't miss" prospect as one is likely to find. The cast features several A-list actors, including the always interesting Russell Crowe and the always delightful Helen Mirren (wish she'd been in more scenes), in fine form. If there's an obvious downside to the overall endeavor, it's that the mini-series condensation leaves the motion picture feeling truncated - something even those unaware of the source material may sense, if only subconsciously. Nevertheless, in an environment where dumb thrillers are outperforming smart ones by wide margins, we can be thankful to have something on this level available, even if it is a remake.
State of Play (United States/United Kingdom, 2009)
Cast: Russell Crowe, Rachel McAdams, Ben Affleck, Jason Bateman, Robin Wright Penn, Helen Mirren, Jeff Daniels
Screenplay: Matthew Michael Carnahan and Tony Gilroy and Billy Ray, based on the television series by Paul Abbott
Cinematography: Rodrigo Prieto
Music: Alex Heffes
U.S. Distributor: Universal Pictures