State of Play is a political thriller wrapped inside a journalistic thriller that works better as the latter.
It's a good, big movie that doesn't look like a big hit, with a strong cast that is based on a better BBC miniseries which was better cast than this American remake. Which is not the same as having a better cast.
The big bad here is a Blackwater-like security outfit called Pointcorp. In a sign of how the mighty have fallen, Blackwater already had to change its name to the faintly prepostereous Xe, so bad has its reputation become in the wake of being banned from Iraq. In a further sign, a Blackwater equivalent called Starkwood is the big bad -- so far, at least -- on this season of the longtime hit thriller series 24.
Which starts to get at a problem with the movie. There's something very familiar about it, which may be inevitable as the story gets condensed into the customary thriller elements.
In the 2003 British miniseries, the big bad was an energy corporation. Which may actually be more timely than poor old Blackwater at this point, though it probably seemed very timely a few years ago when the American remake was being conceived.
Not that the original premise for the BBC was unique, either. But what that show had that this does not was space in which the characters could breathe and live in the midst of the thrill ride and shear off one another in intriguing ways.
It may be that the television model of storytelling -- in episodic series and miniseries -- is best suited for serious drama. And that the theatrical film format now works best for big extravaganzas.
That said, this State of Play is a worthy effort. It's gotten some strong newspaper reviews, perhaps in part because it is a celebration of old school newspaper culture at a time when the newspapers are dying.
Russell Crowe is in strong form as a star investigative reporter definitely of the old school, deftly handling the time-honored cliches of being poorly-dressed, ultra-messy, overweight, and driving a decidedly unstylish car. Rachel McAdams plays up the clash between the classic newspaper culture and the blogosphere as the Washington paper's political gossipeuse a la Wonkette. Crowe nails her with some apt zingers about blogging stereotypes -- all attitude and opinion, sensationalism and shallow facts -- and they develop into a good team.
But since she does remarkably little, um, blogging for a blogger -- we expect the old-school reporter played by Crowe to view his word output to be as precious as his last bottle of Jameson's -- it's a little on the unrealistic side.
As is their boss, played by the great Helen Mirren. Why is a Brit editing a daily newspaper in America's capital? A lifestyle magazine, sure. Mirren's character gets off some more zingers about the sad state of today's journalism regarding the paper's new corporate owners, who are heavy into cost-cutting, shallow sensationalism, and decidedly not rocking the boat.
Since this is a contemporary thriller with a relatively short running time, Crowe's character is actually a set of incongruous characters all rolled into one, held together by his strong persona and acting skills.
When we meet him, Crowe's character appears to be a police reporter, checking out an early morning crime scene, well-known to the local cops. Then he turns out to be a star investigative reporter, with high-level sources everywhere. Including, not least, his buddy and former college roommate, a presidential candidate-in-the-making played by a shiny Ben Affleck. Later, he turns into an action star and budding superspy.
I know a lot of people are down on Affleck, but he's good and actually makes the role as conceived in this movie work better than it would have had it been played by Edward Norton, who dropped out of the production when it was delayed.
The problem is that it's hard to buy Crowe's determinedly frumpy character -- he also weighs about 50 pounds more than when he won the Best Actor Oscar for Gladiator -- and Affleck's gleaming star as best buddies.
The actor originally cast as the reporter, Brad Pitt, would have fit more believably as the politician's pal, not to mention romancer of the politician's aging glamour girl wife, played with deft resignation by Robin Wright Penn. Though Crowe probably makes a more believable journo.
The BBC miniseries was better cast and thus more believable, while still having a thriller plot that you can believe or, well, not.
John Simm, who starred in the original Life On Mars series (the American remake on ABC was just cancelled) and plays a key recurring character on Doctor Who, and David Morrissey are very credible as the journalist and the politician who are also longtime friends. Simm is also very credible as having been the pol's campaign manager, a key twist that is dropped in the remake. Bill Nighy is great as the newspaper editor, playing up to and flouting authority.
With the lines of loyalty and ethics more credibly established, and tangled, in the process, the miniseries just works better than the movie remake. It's not that the miniseries has a better cast -- though it's excellent -- it's that the miniseries is better cast.
If the movie can't live up to the original material, how does it do compared to big American journalist thrillers of the past like All the President's Men, The Parallax View, Absence of Malice, or The Insider?
They're well-regarded today, but some were not big hits and most were a long time ago. And they are all very different movies.
The two films by the great Alan J. Pakula, All the President's Men and The Parallax View, play like tone poems by today's frenetic standards. Pakula built a suspenseful mood by slowing things down, casting glamorous stars Robert Redford and Warren Beatty against type as nerdy and even strange investigative reporters. (Dustin Hoffman was cast perfectly to type.)
In Sydney Pollack's Absence of Malice, in which the hero is wronged by the newspaper, Paul Newman's character brings out reporter Sally Field's foibles and uses them to gain revenge.
Michael Mann's The Insider is an intellectual thriller in which Crowe, this time as real-life corporate whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand, plays off Al Pacino's shrewd real-life journalist Lowell Bergman, as the pair team up against big business skullduggery, both within Crowe's former tobacco business and Pacino's media business.
While State of Play's direction by Kevin Macdonald, a Brit who directed the outstanding The Last King of Scotland on the Idi Amin regime, is flavorful and gives you something other than the obvious shots, in the end it is a contemporary thriller. While it shows the actual work side of journalism, it relies on a faster pace and sudden twists, and on the reporter ending as a rather incongruous action hero. Maybe Crowe, who had packed on the pounds for his previous role as a sardonic CIA officer in Body of Lies, should have slimmed down to his Gladiator and L.A. Confidential style and ditched the journo cliche ratty old coat.
Which is not to say the remake isn't better than 90% of the stuff out there. A lot of reviewers don't like the ending. I think it works.