If there’s a hard sell in our day to day lives it’s the concept of the heroic journalist, the character State of Play director Kevin MacDonald calls his ‘truth-teller’. The common snap judgement is journos equal sleaze, bombarded as we are with tabloids, weekly mags, blogs that seem less concerned with getting the facts straight than with cause célèbre. Somehow though, when we’re confronted with a journalist on screen, especially a die-hard newspaper man, there’s a tacit acceptance, even a desire, that this one is here to do the right thing.
The ultimate example of this is the godfather of filmic investigative journalism All The President’s Men, something to which State of Play aspires, but MacDonald and his talented, albeit partially last minute team muddy the waters with a murky layer of conflict of interest between friendship and getting to the truth.
Based on the BBC series of the same name the film transplants the action from Britain to the political corridors, and the common or garden streets, of Washington DC. Cal McCaffrey (Russell Crowe) is the senior metro reporter at the Washington Globe, an old school newspaper veteran, who investigates the murder of a young Washington aide in the office of rising star congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck). A congressman who happens to be one of McCaffrey’s oldest friends. McCaffrey is thrown together with Globe blogger Della Frye (Rachel McAdams) by their irascible British editor Cameron Lynne (Helen Mirren), and the two of them find themselves in the middle of a cover-up that could fundamentally alter the nation’s relationship between power, security and the politicians that supposedly serve to protect their integrity.
Adapting a successful and critically acclaimed TV series was always going to be problematic as inevitably a faithful film adaptation of a TV series is going to suffer because the amount of detail and complexity must be compressed, and in fact Crowe has said that he didn’t want to watch the original production because of it, but MacDonald, the producers and the screenplay by Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gilroy, and Billy Ray have so successfully translated the original idea into their two hour film, by reinventing the substance around the same basic story, that it is by any real measure a different, and no less entertaining beast.
As the central character, Crowe’s McCaffrey seems initially to be a somewhat clichéd rumpled, dogged charmer but in the end it’s a pretty ideal performance and it’s hard to see where having the original lead, Brad Pitt, would have improved things. In fact, Pitt’s more leading man façade would have distracted from the final incarnation’s street level mirror to the usual high power DC politicos. As a member of those political elite Ben Affleck, looking older and gaunter, handles his public persona with a stoic, smooth demeanour, but underneath you can see the brittle and cracked pressure cooker of his private life.
I’d always been disappointed that the original casting of Edward Norton fell through, and I still think he would have added something to the mix, but Affleck shows, as he did in Hollywoodland, that he’s a more than just a pretty face. Helen Mirren does her best tough-as-nails woman in charge (who better), and at least she gets to perform with her own accent (not that odd mid-lantic drawl from the last National Treasure), mixing in a few choice bits of Brit swearing in the midst of the all-American newsarama. As Della Frye, Rachel McAdams is smart and tenacious, and there’s a real chemistry between her and Crowe, with the banter providing some small glimpses of a 21st Century His Girl Friday amidst the murder and political machinations.
The relationship between McCaffrey and Frye, and the exasperation of their editor, also allows a pointed, if not fully realised, comment on the current assault on traditional print news by their online and often superficial counterparts. The idea that the instant information culture of the web promotes gossip over facts, and doesn’t allow for a measured and conclusive investigation into events. The film is almost a love-letter to this integrity of print journalism, however rose-tinted that view may be. There’s a difference between ‘real news and bullshit’, and nearing the end we’re even told that the story is ‘so important, it should be in print.’ The message is helped by a fully realised newspaper environment; you might never see the printing presses, but you can smell the ink.
Ultimately State of Play does use all the stylish ammo of the modern thriller to draw the audience in, as opposed to its 1976 forefather which was thrilling despite its lack of convention. Then again it’s hard to top the real life political meltdown that was Watergate. But where State of Play really comes up trumps is that like most good conspiracies it goes beyond the global to the personal, even to personal jeopardy; wrongdoings that overshadow what may be a more general right, and a twist in the tail. And as we see at the end, at least no-one gets away clean.