State of Play (2009)

2009 #20
Kevin Macdonald | 127 mins | cinema | 12A / PG-13

This review contains minor spoilers.

State of PlayState of Play is one of my favourite TV series of all time, a densely plotted thriller that packs every minute of its six-hour length with clues, characters, twists, revelations, humour and moments of sheer brilliance. It introduced me to James McAvoy and Marc Warren, both of whom are now leading men to one degree or another (and their appearance together in Wanted gave me a bizarre frisson of fanboy delight that’s unusual outside the realm of sci-fi/fantasy), and Bill Nighy, who was surely known before but has since gone on to even more. And that’s to ignore the fantastic performances of John Simm and David Morrissey, two of our finest actors, carrying Paul Abbott’s beautifully convulted plot through all its intricate twists to an inevitable but powerful conclusion.

Much imitated, though the imitators have either fallen short (The State Within) or been flat-out dismal (The Last Enemy), it therefore seems inevitable that State of Play has followed in the footsteps of Traffik and headed for the US big screen. In the process, it squishes six hours down to two and replaces the Simm/Morrissey dynamic with the filmfan-pleasing reunion of Brad Pitt as brilliant-but-troubled reporter Cal McAffrey and Edward Norton as wunderkind politician Stephen Collins. Y’know, in their hands, it might just work!

Except Pitt walked and Norton followed, hastily replaced by the unwaveringly grumpy Russell Crowe as Cal and the offensively inoffensive Ben Affleck as Collins. Oh dear, it’s not off to a good start…

Fortunately, State of Play: The Movie quickly turns out to be a good case for not judging a book by its cover — or, literally, a film by its cast. To be blunt, none are as good as in the original, but that’s the nature of the beast here — even a Pitt/Norton pairing would have struggled to achieve in two hours what Simm/Morrissey could in six. Helen Mirren fares best as editor Cameron, the Nighy role, though doesn’t have the screentime to make it her own. Crowe, Affleck and Rachel McAdams (in a beefed-up role as young reporter Della Frye) are all above average, but none come really close to the originators. Jason Bateman’s appearance as Dominic Foy is probably more than decent — certainly, other reviewers clearly unfamiliar with the original have hailed him as Best Supporting Oscar-worthy — but is as nothing compared to Warren’s creepy wimp in the series. When Collins breaks his cool and attacks Foy, the Affleck/Bateman version packs none of the punch of the Morrissey/Warren original.

But the real focus of this screen-to-bigger-screen translation is that complex six-hour story, condensed from 340 minutes to just 127. This three-fold reduction has been well handled by a trio of screenwriters, and perhaps their most noteworthy achievement is crafting a film that feels entirely like its own entity without sacrificing anything significant from the primary conspiracy plot. The relocation to the politics of Washington is unobtrusive, apparently not encountering issues like the Law & Order: UK writers did in converting across justice systems; as is the focus of Collins’ investigation, switched here from an oil giant to an arms contractor. Both quickly help give the film its own identity, while the latter also makes some plot points more straightforward — with such a shortened running time and so much plot to cram in, this is completely forgivable and works seamlessly. Unsurprisingly some of the depth and nuance of the six-hour version is lost in such an abbreviation, the adaptors choosing to cut characters (Cameron’s son, as played by McAvoy on TV, is a glaring omission for fans) and subplots (Collins’ wife barely features, but again only by comparison) rather than significantly abridge or rush the main narrative. It moves fast, but in a pleasant way — this is not an under-plotted or ponderous thriller.

In all this talk of the plot, original writer Abbott should not be forgotten. While the film’s writers have naturally changed things substantially, much of it is surprisingly cosmetic: the essential cut and thrust of the main conspiracy plot remains, and that’s all from Abbott’s brain. Some of the series’ most memorable moments are intact too, though naturally they don’t quite stand up to comparison — the already-mentioned Collins/Foy beating, for example. Others are sadly lost entirely — my favourite bit of the whole series is when Cameron stops the presses to publish the best opening half-dozen pages of a newspaper ever (so good you would never see something so bold in reality), but that’s nowhere to be seen here. Equally humour is light on the ground, but a few intended laughs do stick through. Their number is quite well-balanced, and all pleasantly natural — aside from a few of Cameron’s one-liners there are no enforced “comedy scenes”, just amusing lines and moments that would be equally unobtrusive in real life.

Macdonald adds his own flourishes to the tale beyond the relocation and business focus. Aside from a slightly unusual obsession with shots of helicopters over the city, his most significant addition is a thematic strand on the potential demise of the newspaper in the face of TV and the Internet. As the story breaks, the explosion of news snippets — from TV, blogs, YouTube — are wonderfully handled, indicating the countless ways we consume news today — and how quickly a lie can spread once someone’s reported it as fact. Sadly these montages fall by the wayside as Cal and Della get deeper into uncovering the complex truth, the movie no longer having the time to indulge them. It’s a shame, because continuing this through every plot twist would’ve helped raise the film’s quality and individuality that little bit extra. Instead, some of the mood and tone they served to create slips a little as the story moves on.

Some reviews have criticised the ending, many going so far as to say it loses all its quality in the last 10 minutes with a dodgy final revelation. This worried me going in, but in fact it remains true to the series’ plot throughout. Perhaps some reviewers need reminding that they’re watching a thriller — you can’t really end with someone confirming what we’ve known for the past half hour, you need a twist. The one that State of Play provides is possibly surprising (I say “possibly” because there will always be those ready to cry “I knew it all along!”) and makes more than enough sense to justify itself. It doesn’t undermine what’s gone before in the slightest; in fact, if anything, it makes it that bit more plausible (unless you really believe huge 24-esque conspiracies are plausible) and casts new light on everything that we’ve seen. Just like the TV series did. It’s not going to be remembered as one of the great twists of all time, but it’s fit for purpose.

For me, the biggest misstep was an incredibly trivial one: the closing credits sequence. Shot in a bright style with relatively jolly music, it totally jars with the increasingly dark thriller just witnessed. The basic conceit of it — the printing of a paper — ties perfectly to the “death of the paper” theme, but its execution is lacking. Of course, when the credits sequence is the only major flaw in a movie (well, aside from the odd spot of clichéd dialogue, and a few moments when Crowe’s hair seems to be auditioning for a L’Oréal advert), you can’t complain too much.

As a fan of the original series, my thoughts ultimately come back to that. It’s a comparison the movie version would always have suffered under, and it’s to the credit of all involved that they’ve managed to create something that exists independently. Even to someone who loves the TV series, watching the film doesn’t feel like a highlights reel or awkward plot summary — it’s the best abridgment one could hope for, uncompromising in not dumbing down the plot, and still managing to add significant elements all of its own. If you remove the TV series from the equation, State of Play stands by itself as an above-average, intelligent and compelling thriller.

Just like the original series, it’s exactly the sort of thing I wish they made more of. Perhaps, if we’re lucky, Abbott will be inspired to revive State of Play 2

4 out of 5

1 thought on “State of Play (2009)

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