By most accounts, the BBC miniseries “State of Play” was a riveting political thriller and well worth the six hours it would take me to watch it. (But why? I could watch almost a whole season of “30 Rock” in that time.) The two-hour American theatrical remake may not do justice to the complexities of the original, but it is a taut and efficient thriller that, unlike so many of its genre, actually has a brain in its head.
This should come as no surprise, given its tony BBC pedigree and the caliber of talent involved in the remake. Kevin Macdonald, who made “The Last King of Scotland” and the tense documentaries “One Day in September” and “Touching the Void,” is the director; the screenplay was written by Matthew Michael Carnahan (“The Kingdom,” “Lions for Lambs”), with revisions by Tony Gilroy (the Bourne series) and Billy Ray (“Shattered Glass,” “Breach”). The result calls to mind films like “All the President’s Men.” With the death of traditional newspapers imminent, how much longer before such movies, unless they are period pieces, are obsolete?
“State of Play” addresses that issue, albeit shallowly — a tradeoff, perhaps, of cramming a six-hour story into two hours. Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) is a quintessential ink-stained wretch at the Washington Globe, the sort of no-nonsense hard-news reporter who keeps bourbon in his desk and whose walls are covered in several layers of Post-It notes and clippings. His brassy boss, Cameron Lynne (Helen Mirren), caught between her journalistic standards and pleasing the paper’s new profit-obsessed owners, has overseen such innovations as news blogs. One of the paper’s bloggers, young Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), approaches Cal for background on a story; his attitude toward her is probably similar to how covered-wagon salesmen treated automobile dealers.
Cal is working on a story about a double homicide, seemingly drug-related. Della is writing about the apparent suicide of a Capitol Hill staffer named Sonia Baker. She worked for — and was sleeping with — Rep. Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), who’s currently investigating the activities of a private defense contractor called PointCorp. Collins and his wife, Anne (Robin Wright Penn), are old friends of Cal’s. The double homicide and the Sonia Baker suicide are, needless to say, not unrelated after all. Why Cameron would let Cal continue to work on a story that turns out to be connected, even indirectly, to his pal Collins is beyond me. A paper like the Globe would surely be sensitive to any hint of a conflict of interest.
But as we learn over the course of the movie, everything is personal. The great lesson in “State of Play” is that you can’t separate human nature from business, journalism, or politics. No matter how much you try, your professional life will be affected by your personality, both for good and bad. Cal’s personal connections, Collins’ dalliances, Della’s relative inexperience, and a host of other thorny issues complicate what would have been a complicated news story anyway. And, of course, if it weren’t for human nature, none of these three deaths would have happened in the first place.
The twists and turns of the plot are engaging and reasonably plausible; when the last few strain credulity, we accept them as a convention of the genre — a movie like this NEEDS those last couple surprises. The cast is serious-minded and focused (Jason Bateman and Jeff Daniels help out as an informant and a congressman, respectively); I don’t think there are any car chases or explosions; the whole production has the feel of something produced by adults, for adults. If it lacks some of the depth of the classics of the whistleblower genre (including Crowe’s own “The Insider”), it’s forgivable. When was the last time you saw a lean, uncluttered mystery-thriller that didn’t insult your intelligence?
B (2 hrs., 7 min.; )