State of Play, a Hollywood adaptation of the six-part BBC series that first broadcast in 2003, gets off to a terrific start. The streets and back alleys of Washington DC are greasy and damp. Across and through them, with the desperation of someone who knows he may not be alive too much longer, runs a young man carrying a briefcase.
He's hit by a car, grapples with fence wire, and then, just at the moment when it seems he might escape from whomever it is he wants to hide from, he's shot in the head.
Seconds later, a pizza deliveryman who witnessed the killing is gunned down, too. Exit the assassin, allowing audience members, who can't have been this thrilled since the last Bourne film, to catch their breath.
State of Play, directed by Kevin Macdonald (Touching The Void, The Last King of Scotland) and written by Tony Gilroy, Matthew Michael Carnahan and Billy Ray, never quite recaptures the clammy excitement and dramatic velocity drama of that opening scene. The longer it goes on, the more knotted and entangled its plot becomes, odd characters and unexpected revelations thickening the film's arteries.
None of this is surprising. Paul Abbott's original series, one of the most politically dark and enthralling since Edge Of Darkness, lasted the best part of six hours. Here the action has been relocated across the Atlantic and compressed to feature length. It's a wonder that it's as good as it is.
Much of this is down to Russell Crowe, who brings heft and energy to his performance as Cal McAffrey, a veteran investigative reporter at the Washington Globe who's investigating those two deaths. He likes to drink, has an easy rapport with the city's black folks not shared by all his white-collared colleagues, and a tough way with potential witnesses, which includes roughing them up and illegally taping them.
Alongside him is Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), perky and ambitious, whom he patronises for being a blogger rather than being an old-school beat journalist. She shows her detective chops in researching the apparent suicide of congressional aide Sonia Baker. It turns out that the aide was sleeping with rising-star congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), was possibly not an aide, and definitely not a suicide.
All three deaths seem to be connected. And to have something to do with a military contractor called Point Corps. And, if the full facts about them ever reach the public, to endanger the lives of both Collins and McAffrey, who – another twist! – happens not only to have been his college room-mate, but to have been secretly bedding his wife, Anne (Robin Wright Penn).
Twisty and turny, in the manner of espionage thrillers such as Syriana (2005) and this year's Duplicity, State of Play is also a throwback to Alan Pakula's The Parallax View (1974) and All The President's Men (1976). It's a film that celebrates journalists for their willingness to fight the lies and spin of vested interests and to dig up inconvenient truths.
Right now, when newspapers are shedding reporters or demanding that they rebrand themselves as "content providers", this depiction seems both anachronistic and compelling.
Some of the most amusing scenes, in a film that weighs toward the sombre, involve McAffrey and Della jousting with each other professionally. He thinks she's a lightweight, someone who could do with using a pen rather than staring at a pixellated screen all day; she thinks he's a something of a relic. Other movies would make sure that this tension resolves itself between the sheets; here, the grizzled guy who looks like comedian Bill Bailey becomes the young woman's mentor.
Crowe, who seems to have piled on the pounds for this role, is irresistible to watch. He has a centre of gravity, but also a lightness of touch – a quick glance here, a spat-out jibe there – that, if you haven't seen the original series, will keep you guessing about whether his idealism will be rewarded or thwarted.
It's hard, though, to believe that he and Collins used to be close friends, or that he would give up the opportunity for a front-page scoop in order to help the beleaguered congressman. Affleck's character is idealistic and shiny – as politicians of his ilk are sometimes required to be – but he's also fundamentally inert. The film loses energy whenever he remains on screen for very long.
The other performers are all ready and able. McAdams, with her lively eyes and large, expressive forehead, holds her own against Crowe. Mercifully, she avoids any temptation to play girly and demure to his grizzled alpha male. Jason Bateman, as a squirmy and cocaine-dependent fixer who is trapped into squealing naughty revelations, is hugely funny.
The one disappointment, and that's not a word one uses lightly about her, is Helen Mirren. As editor of the Washington Globe, she's playing the role Bill Nighy made his own in Paul Abbott's series. She doesn't get enough screen time here. And the lines she's asked to deliver – "Don't be an arse", and, in relation to Collins and his aide, "So was he knobbing her or not?" – sound like the kind of laboured repartee even Ann Robinson in The Weakest Link would hesitate to voice.
State of Play doesn't betray its source material. It's not a huge let-down. It's a perfectly satisfactory evening's entertainment. But I wish it could have been more than that. That it had been savage, incisive, wounding. In the end, it never quite convinces us that the director cares hugely about his characters or the dastardly machinations some of them are trying to uncover.+
Synopsis: D.C. reporter Cal McCaffrey untangles a mystery of murder and collusion among some of the nation’s most promising political and corporate figures. Handsome, unflappable U.S. Congressman Stephen Collins is the future of his political party: an honorable appointee who serves as the chairman of a committee overseeing defense spending. All eyes are upon the rising star to be his party’s contender for the upcoming presidential race. Until his research assistant/mistress is brutally murdered and buried secrets come tumbling out. McCaffrey has the dubious fortune of both an old friendship with Collins and a ruthless editor, Cameron, who has assigned him to investigate. As he and partner Della try to uncover the killer’s identity, McCaffrey steps into a cover-up that threatens to shake the nation’s power structures. And in a town of spin-doctors and wealthy politicos, he will discover one truth: when billions are at stake, no one’s integrity, love or life is ever safe.
"State of Play" is a smart, ingenious thriller set in the halls of Congress and the city room of a newspaper not unlike the Washington Post. It's also a political movie; its villain a shadowy corporation that contracts with the government for security duties and mercenaries in Iraq. The name is PointCorp. Think Blackwater. If an outfit like that would kill for hire, the plot wonders, would it also kill to protect its profits?
Here is Russell Crowe playing an ace investigative reporter for "The Washington Globe." All the cops and most of the people on Capitol Hill seem to know him; he's one of those instinctive newsmen who connects the dots so quickly that a 127-minute movie can be extracted from a six-hour BBC miniseries. This keeps him so occupied that he has little time for grooming, and doesn't seem to ever wash his lanky hair.
Crowe stepped into the role after Brad Pitt dropped out. Pitt, I suspect, would have looked more clean-cut, but might not have been as interesting as Crowe in this role as Cal McAffrey, a scruffy hero in a newspaper movie that is acutely aware of the crisis affecting newspapers. He becomes part of a team that involves not two experienced reporters, as in "All the President's Men," but Della (Rachel McAdams), one of the paper's plucky bloggers. He tries to teach her some ancient newspaper wisdom, such as: If you seem to be on the edge of uncovering an enormous political scandal, don't blow your cover by hurrying online with two-bit gossip.
In a short span of time, a man is shot dead in an alley; a passing bicyclist, also a witness, is killed, and a woman is shoved or jumps under a subway train. Cal covers all of these deaths in person. The dead woman was a researcher for Rep. Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), who breaks into tears during a congressional hearing into PointCorp, and confesses to conducting an affair with her. His wife, Anne (Robin Wright Penn), plays the brave politician's wife and says their family will stay together. Anne and Cal were lovers in college. The dead man turns out to be carrying a briefcase stolen from PointCorp. Now we connect the dots.
There are many other surprises in the film, which genuinely fooled me a couple of times, and maintains a certain degree of credibility for a thriller. The implication is that PointCorp and the administration are locked in a an unholy alliance to channel millions of taxpayer dollars into unsavory hands. That this can all be untangled by one reporter who looks like a bum and another who looks like Rachel McAdams (which is no bad thing) goes with the territory.
An important role in their investigation is played by the Globe's editor, Cameron Lynne (Helen Mirren). The paper's new corporate owners are on her neck to cut costs, redesign the venerable front page, get more scoops and go for the gossip today instead of waiting for the Pulitzer tomorrow. There is, in fact, an eerie valedictory feeling to the film; mother of God, can this be the last newspaper movie? (The answer is no, because no matter what happens to newspapers, the newspaper movie is a durable genre. Shouting "stop the presses!" is ever so much more exciting than shouting "stop the upload!")
It is a reliable truth that you should never ask an expert how a movie deals with his field of knowledge. Archeologists, for example, have raised questions about "The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor." When Cal races out of the office at deadline and shouts over his shoulder, "Tell Cameron to kill the story," it is just possible that she would tear up the front page if the story was so important the paper could not risk being wrong. But when Cal and his sidekick the perky blogger solve the mystery and are back in the office and it is noted "Cameron has been holding the presses four hours!" -- I think her new corporate bosses will want to have a long, sad talk with her, after which she will discover if the company still offers severance packages.
"State of Play," directed by Kevin Macdonald ("The Last King of Scotland"), is well-assembled and has some good performances. Crowe pulls off the Joaquin Phoenix look-alike; McAdams doesn't overplay her blogger's newbieness; Mirren convinced me she could be a newspaper editor. Wright Penn always finds the correct shadings. If Affleck, as he plays this role, were to have his face carved into Mt. Rushmore, people would ask which was the original.
The thing is, though, that the movie never quite attains altitude. It has a great takeoff, levels nicely, and then seems to land on autopilot. Maybe it's the problem of resolving so much plot in a finite length of time, but it seems a little too facile toward the end. Questions are answered, relationships revealed and mysteries solved too smoothly. If a corporation like PointCorp could have its skullduggery exposed that easily, it wouldn't still be in business.