Paul Abbott's six-part BBC drama State of Play wasn't just one of the most acclaimed television events of 2003. It had such a following that it's hard to think of any British series that's garnered better reviews in subsequent years. The prospect of Abbott's labyrinthine yarn being unravelled for a two-hour Hollywood movie, then, is enough to make most right-minded people boycott their local cinema. But fear not, the new State of Play film is no ordinary remake.
It's directed by Kevin Macdonald, the Oscar-winning British director of The Last King of Scotland, and it's co-written by Tony Gilroy, who scripted the Bourne trilogy and Michael Clayton. They're both as skilful as anyone working today at brainy yet mainstream action and adventure, and neither of them tarnishes his reputation here. I can't remember when I last saw a more intelligent, gripping or substantial thriller. Most impressively of all, State of Play doesn't feel like a project that's left over from 2003, but one which evokes the classic paranoid conspiracy thrillers of the Seventies, as well as being bang up to date in its subject matter.
Taking over John Simm's lead role (and filling in for Brad Pitt, who dropped out at the last minute) is Russell Crowe, a Washington newspaper journalist who prefers to do his reporting the old-school way – on the streets rather than on the information superhighway. Compared to his peppy young colleague on the blog desk, Rachel McAdams, Crowe is a dinosaur: a tubby, beardy, shaggy-maned hack who's a dead ringer for Justin Lee Collins from The Friday Night Project. But he could have stumbled on to the story of his career.
He's just started sniffing around two alleyway shootings when he hears about another sudden fatality. The pretty aide of a crusading congressman, Ben Affleck, has either fallen or been pushed in front of an underground train. When Affleck announces her death to the press, he has tears in his eyes, and that's enough to spark rumours of a Clinton-Lewinsky type of working relationship. In a sly montage, gossip mutates instantly into statements of fact on the internet and the rolling news TV channels. For the media, the infidelity is far more noteworthy than the minor business of a young woman's death. But Crowe suspects that it might be linked to the earlier shootings, and they might all be linked to the private military contractors who were being investigated by Affleck and his assistant.
Crowe sees himself as being driven by his thirst for truth, but in State of Play every character has a personal agenda, however heroic they might wish to appear. Crowe's motives are muddied by his history as Affleck's college roommate, and by the fling he had with Affleck's wife, Robin Wright Penn. Meanwhile, his editor, Helen Mirren (in Bill Nighy's BBC role), is less interested in the truth than than by how the revelations will be received by the multimedia corporation that pays her wages. One of the themes that gives the film so much more weight than a standard murder mystery is the rise of cyberspace and the concurrent decline of (sob) the newspaper, a theme far more relevant now than it was when the TV series aired.
More and more characters, ideas and twists keep whizzing along at breathtaking speed, but Macdonald and his writing team keep things admirably lucid, unlike, for instance, a certain recent Bond film. And as outlandish as the plot might be – it is a conspiracy thriller, after all – it always seems to be happening to real people who work in real offices in a real city, with the cluttered desks and graffiti-smeared walls that implies. It's tempting to say that they don't make 'em like this any more. State of Play is, at heart, a tribute to the virtues of old-fashioned newspaper reporting, but it embodies old-fashioned movie-making virtues, too.
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