After a somewhat fraught production process, the film adaptation of the acclaimed BBC mini-series State of Play has finally made it onto the big screen. The action has shifted from London to Washington D.C, and none of the original actors remain, but otherwise, this taunt, character-driven tale of political corruption and crusading journalism remains as true to the original as it’s possible to be, given a 6-hour series has been condensed down to a 2 hour film.
A maverick journalist for the fictional Washington Globe, Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) is looking into what appears to be a run-of-the-mill drugs-related shooting when he finds himself locking horns with the paper’s young political blogger, Della Frye (Rachel McAdams). She’s hoping he can supply her with some gossip on his former college roommate, now Senator Tom Collins (Ben Affleck), in the spotlight due to an investigation he’s heading into the outsourcing of the US military to the sinister Pointcorp Corporation. When Collins’ lead researcher dies in suspicious circumstances, the truth about his relationship with her begins to emerge, and the Senator finds himself mired in allegations of adultery — and more.
McAffrey and Frye form a reluctant partnership to untangle the web of corruption, scandal and violence that link their two seemingly unrelated stories into a much bigger and more troubling picture — all before their stressed and increasingly impatient editor (Helen Mirren — and why, incidentally, are British characters in American movies always made to swear in oh-so-amusingly British ways?) gives up on them completely.
The film’s plot is dense but well told, with a tight script, solid performances, and deft direction that ensures you’re never bored for a moment. It’s refreshing to watch a thriller that relies on its plot and the relationships between its characters to build tension and drama, rather than on explosive action scenes.
That said, the balance between personal and public life is something that State of Play doesn’t pull off entirely successfully. That nobody, even in the highest of offices, can ever truly separate their work from their private life is a point State of Play makes with subtlety and intelligence, examining just what elements of politicians’ lives they should be judged on. Yet the over-complicated relationship between Collins, McAffrey and Collins’ wife adds little to the story, while that between McAffrey and the youthful Frye is underdeveloped and one-sided: she learns how to be a real, grown-up journalist from him, while he appears to learn nothing from her.
The big political questions raised are never satisfactorily explored, but perhaps that’s because there are no easy answers.
At the heart of this film lie a series of oppositions: corporate vs state-run, public vs private, and — perhaps most obvious and most poignant of all — good old-fashioned investigative journalism vs comment-driven Internet blogging. More than anything, as the final credits roll over images of the newspaper’s printing presses, State of Play feels like a passionate but possibly futile defence of what could soon be a seriously endangered media species. No wonder I liked it so much.