Pressing issues – This glossy, assured adaptation fails to live up to its BBC roots

Emma Dibdin 9 June 2009

State Of Play – 3/5

The path from acclaimed and beloved television series to big screen adaptation – paved though it may be with good intentions – is often fraught with peril, as the makers of last year’s unfairly maligned Brideshead Revisited learned. UK to US television reworkings have an even iffier track record, with the good (The Office) far outweighed by the bad (Coupling), the ugly (Life On Mars) and the truly hideous (Red Dwarf). State of Play is at least well equipped for its task with its A-list cast and Kevin McDonald (The Last King Of Scotland) at the helm and it’s no surprise therefore that it overcomes the odds, emerging as a fairly successful, if deeply flawed, adaptation.With the action uprooted from London to Washington DC, the story begins with two seemingly unrelated deaths: a petty thief shot dead and a Congressman’s assistant-cum-mistress killed by a subway train.

Things swiftly become complicated for said Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck) and for the friend whose help he seeks, brash news journo Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe). As clues emerge pointing to a high level cover-up and Cal begins his relentless chase for the truth, assisted by wide-eyed blogger Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), he finds himself caught up in an increasingly treacherous web that will put his integrity, his loyalties and – yes – even his life on the line.

It all sounds very exciting and high-concept but it is also unexpectedly thoughtful, its partial return to the somewhat neglected cinematic trope of journalist as hero making for a more cerebral experience than the average mystery thriller. The influence of All The President’s Men is clear, though it’s hard to imagine Robert Redford’s Woodward hanging off the roof of a moving car while Deep Throat fires several rounds at his head – despite its intelligence, the film doesn’t quite resist the Hollywood temptation to turn schlubby, wisecracking hero into improbably adept action man when the script requires it. In fact it’s characterization that suffers the most in the adaptation process, with Bourne scripter Tony Gilroy impressively condensing the BBC’s six hours of densely layered plot into just over two.

The events trip along nicely but the people involved frequently feel reduced to stereotypes: the shrewd Della of the series is now a naïve ingénue, while the casting of the glacial Robin Wright Penn as Collins’ wife ensures that the demi-love triangle setup never has an iota of the passion it needs to order to feel anything other than superfluous. Even Helen Mirren, playing the icy Brit card to superbly enjoyable effect as Cal and Della’s ball-busting editor, begins to feel weighed down by her one-note role. But what really keeps this from being a truly impressive adaptation, is the casting of Affleck. Having made an accomplished directorial debut last year with Gone Baby Gone, hope were high that he might leave the acting to his brother Casey and focus on what are clearly his strengths behind the camera. Alas, it was not to be.

There are two significant moments at which Collins receives disturbing news and is required to react almost entirely without words. David Morrissey’s original performance was a master class in nuanced expression; in such moments pain, shock, guilt, perhaps self-loathing, all played out plain as day across his face, tempered consistently by his awareness of the need to dissemble. Affleck, charged with the same task, has the unfortunate tendency to look more than anything like a man pondering what to have for lunch, his face remaining frustratingly impassive as the plot continues to twist and turn towards what should be its shocking conclusion. Collins becomes a whiny, one-note simpleton rather than a flawed, morally dubious and emotionally volatile man, so that the final scene that should be electrifying – indeed, was electrifying when played between Morrissey and John Simm – feels painfully limp and anticlimactic. That the film remains as solidly effective as it does is a credit to Crowe, whose slovenly but razor-sharp Cal is the true protagonist here in contrast to the more ensemble driven series. His scenes with McAdams goes some way to filling the Affleck-shaped void in the story’s human dynamics; there’s some fun and pertinent bickering between them with regard to the newsprint v. blogging divide, and one or two understatedly sweet moments (he presents her with a necklace of pens to try and persuade her to write rather than type once in a while) that feel genuinely fresh.

Jason Bateman also impresses in his brief role as mercurial party boy Dominic Foy, oscillating convincingly from detached self-possession to emotional collapse in the space of two scenes. The setting of Washington, meanwhile, actually lends the media scandal surrounding Collins’ affairs a sense of heightened urgency given America’s intensely personality-driven politics where politicians are celebrities first and foremost. Tense, tightly scripted and offering more food for thought than most of this season’s releases, State of Play still disappoints as an adaptation of its source, largely thanks to the miscasting of one pivotal role. Add another mark if you haven’t seen the series.

Emma Dibdin