- Rated PG-13
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All photos © Universal
Reviewed by Jason Zingale
atching Universal’s big screen adaptation of “State of Play” after having already seen the original BBC miniseries is kind of like watching “The Usual Suspects” a second time. While the story and the characters remain just as intriguing, the film’s climactic ending doesn’t feel quite so, well, climactic. That’s more a product of the feature-length format than the filmmaking, however, as director Kevin Macdonald was assigned the seemingly impossible task of cramming six very tense and complex hours into a two-hour movie. The end result is better than you might expect, but while “State of Play” succeeds both as a political thriller and a commentary on the future of print media, you’d be better off just watching the original instead.
Russell Crowe stars as Cal McAffrey, a veteran reporter for the Washington Globe investigating the double murder of a young street thief and the unlucky pizza delivery man who witnessed it. When the death of a Capitol Hill aide steals all the headlines, however, Cal teams up with the newspaper’s doe-eyed political blogger, Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), to see if there’s a connection. As it turns out, the aide in question was not only working for Senator Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck) as the lead researcher for a Congressional inquiry into a private military contractor group, but was sleeping with him as well. With every other media outlet focused solely on the affair, Cal exploits his relationship with Collins to get the real facts. The trail leads to a possible corporate cover-up involving the young thief and the Senator’s aide, but when Cal realizes the consequences that come with breaking a story of this magnitude, he's forced to choose between his job and his friendship.
One of the key reasons why “State of Play” works as well as it does is because of its story; and not the adapted version as written by Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gilroy and Billy Ray (a Hollywood thriller dream team if there ever was one), but rather the original story by Paul Abbott. The idea that this corporate cover-up really could happen is what made the BBC version so captivating, and the 2009 update retains that plausibility by keeping the core of the story the same, but changing the variables (like the switch from an oil company to private military contractors) in order to make it more relevant to today’s audience. Of course, they’ve also trimmed down the main story and even cut out a few subplots for the sake of time, and in doing so have lost some important character development. It’s not really game-changing in terms of having the story make sense, but it certainly made the experience that much richer because of it.
The comparisons don’t end there, either. While some of the actors in this version are actually preferable in their respective roles (Russell Crowe is perfectly cast as the scruffy journo, and Jason Bateman steals the show yet again as the contractor's sleazy publicist), Macdonald would have been better off enticing the original actors to return. It’s not that Rachel McAdams or Helen Mirren (as Cal's brassy boss) are necessarily bad in the film, but that Kelly Macdonald and Bill Nighy are that much better. Ben Affleck, on the other hand, is just plain terrible – overemphasizing every line of dialogue as if he’s performing on stage – and has no business working with actors of this caliber.
For as many problems as the movie has when compared to its TV counterpart, “State of Play” is actually a really solid film. Just because the rules have changed doesn’t mean the game isn’t the same, and Kevin Macdonald has proven that here with a smart and entertaining thriller targeted toward audiences who can appreciate a good whodunit. It might be a little flashier than its predecessor, and it might not be as complex, but at the end of the day, "State of Play" is about two things: great characters and a great story. The newspaper industry should take note, because this is how you adapt to change.
Single-Disc Blu-Ray Review:
Universal’s release of “State of Play” isn’t even in the same league as some the studio’s better Blu-rays, but it does include a couple of great extras like a making-of featurette and a picture-in-picture video track packed with more behind-the-scenes footage. There’s also another U-Control feature that offers pop-up facts about various points of interest around Washington, D.C., as well as a few decent deleted scenes.