Here at TFG your humble host doesn’t venture into contemporary mainstream Hollywood studio fare too often, but once in awhile they manage to get something so right that one can’t help but take notice. Such is the case with “State Of Play,” the new film from director Kevin (“The Last King Of Scotland”) MacDonald based on Paul Abbott’s highly-regarded BBC miniseries of the same name.
As a fan of the original, I regarded this new “Americanized” version with the requisite amount of trepidation one would expect, but walked away from the film not only pleasantly surprised, but downright enthusiastic. While it’s true that the only thing British about this version is Helen Mirren, the film nonetheless retains the essential character of its source material and shows that an adaptation can remain faithful to its roots without becoming a soulless husk of overly-literal fealty a la Zack Synder’s “Watchmen.”
Russell Crowe stars as Cal McAffrey, a grizzled veteran reporter for the fictional Washington Globe newspaper who has literally seen and heard it all before a thousand times over, yet conveys the sense that, while certainly a cynic, he’s just too damn busy —and devoted to his craft—to become as bitter as he’s perhaps got reason to be. Crowe gets to the meat of what makes this guy tick from the word go and delivers a finely nuanced and refreshingly understated performance. Ben Affleck is his old college roommate who’s gone and gotten himself elected to Congress after a stint in the army during the first Gulf War and retains some sense, so it seems, of honor and duty to country, but when a young staffer with whom he’s been having an affair either commits suicide or is murdered, his squeaky-clean image comes crashing down and his struggle to spin events to his ultimate advantage is one of the cornerstones of the film. Affleck doesn’t do much beyond play a cardboard cut-out in a suit, but then that’s all he’s ever done, and in this film that’s really all that’s required of him.
Cal must walk a tightrope between covering the story and remaining true to his friend, and the underlying tension between doing what’s right as a journalist and what’s right as a human being is his central character dilemma—it also doesn’t help matters much that Cal is in love with his buddy’s wife (played by Robin Wright Penn), has an old-school hardnosed editor breathing down his neck(the aforementioned Mirren) while simultaneously putting hers on the line for him with the paper’s unseen new Murdoch-esque owners, and is saddled with shepherding along a young assistant working on the story who comes from the blogosphere and represents the new wave of instantaneous, poorly-researched “journalism” that’s fast taking over from Cal’s paper-and-ink dinosaur.
As the story plays out, we come to see that Affleck’s congressman is the pointman in a series of Capitol Hill investigations into a Blackwater-type private paramilitary corporation, and that all may not be what it seems with his deceased young paramour. It’s a heady mix of intrigue, scandal, and greed that your viewer really can’t say too much more about without spilling the beans, suffice to say that just when you think you’ve got the thing figured out, new twists arise to leave you freshly bewildered all over again, and even devotees of the original, who know how it’s all going to end, will find themselves enraptured by the terse, economic way in which director MacDonald contracts six hours of material down to just over two without missing a beat and without selling short the richly-textured layers of plots and subplots that gained Abbott’s TV version such near-universal accolades. Besides, with some new issues brought into the fold such as the examination of the role of private mercenaries—err, “contractors”—in America’s military operations and the rise of emerging media at the expense of the old, there are plenty of intricacies here for audiences both old and new to consider.
The end result is a classic jourmalistic thriller in the style of “All The President’s Men,” one where even if you know the outcome already—and in fairness most of the audience won’t—getting there is such a such an enjoyable experience that you won’t want to miss the ride.