Director: Kevin MacDonald
Washington, D.C., the present day. DeShaun Stagg, a drug addict is murdered by an unseen assassin. Sonia Baker, political researcher for Congressman Stephen Collins falls under a train. Collins discovers this news whilst sitting on the defence committee he chairs, which is investigating PointCorp, a company seeking to obtain defence and security contracts. It emerges that Collins had been having an affair with Baker. Collins seeks the help of his college friend, Cal McAffrey, a journalist for the Washington Globe, a newspaper that has recently been bought out by MediaCorp, and whose editor, Cameron Lynne, is being asked to chase sales. McAffrey and a young blogger, Della Frye, investigate the death of Baker. She died where CCTV was not present, and Stagg had contacted her before her death. McAffrey discovers from Stagg’s friend that Stagg had stolen a briefcase from the assassin, which had contained a gun and photographs of Baker.
McAffrey and Frye discover that Baker had been the lead researcher on the defence committee and had been paid by PointCorp to spy on Collins, although this ceased when they started an affair. McAffrey and Anne Collins, former college lovers, almost reignite their passions. McAffrey has a source at PointCorp, whose information seems to be a trap to drive McAffrey to the hands of the assassin. Dominic Foy, a friend of Baker’s had been hired to place her on Collins staff and reveals that Baker was pregnant when she died. McAffrey links the assassin, Robert Bingham, to Collins, who had saved his life in Kuwait. Collins confesses. McAffrey writes the story of his guilt.
The 2003 BBC television series ‘State of Play’ was one of the greatest British television achievements of recent years; a perfect synthesis of writing and acting talent at their best. Writer Paul Abbott had worked on ‘Cracker’ and would follow this with ‘Shameless’, whilst the stellar cast included John Simm, David Morrissey, Bill Nighy, Kelly MacDonald and James McAvoy. Its success made a Hollywood remake inevitable, but adapting television series into full length features has its obvious problems. A six hour series has been condensed into a two hour film, but MacDonald has been able to retain the strong narrative and give or take the odd exception (where for instance is the brilliant but troubled editor’s son?) the set of characters that had been fleshed out perfectly by Abbott.
Since the running time of the feature film is shorter, a few corners have been cut with characterisation. This is exacerbated by the decision by the film makers to bring the film right into the digital media age. There is a complete lack of subtlety about the audience’s introduction to McAffrey. As one could probably tell from his name alone, he’s Irish-American. However, this has to be reiterated to us by watching McAffrey singing along to Irish folk-rock whilst driving. McAffrey’s maverick nature as a journalist is made evident by his unkempt appearance, his exceptionally messy desk (later scrutinised by Frye with great intensity as an unsubtle reminder) and his 16 year old desktop computer (slightly stretching the realms of plausibility). McAffrey is clearly being set up as the complete contrast to Frye’s perky young blogger, referred to as a “bloodsucker” by McAffrey and someone who spreads gossip rather than investigative journalism. Naturally of course this odd couple develop a grudging respect, and for Frye’s own personal development, she must of course learn a number of lessons from McAffrey (who even signs off his story with Frye as joint-reporter). This relationship has been intensified from the original series, whilst other characters have been overshadowed or abandoned, and it doesn’t seem to have done the film any favours. The relationship just seems to develop in a rather clichéd fashion.
This is a shame because ‘State of Play’ makes a number of relevant points about contemporary journalism and media. The Washington Globe has been bought by a multinational corporation, probably by a Rupert Murdoch figure, whose demands are sales and getting the news out there first, not spending more time and money than is necessary to get the story correct. It’s the kind of environment that allows bloggers like Della Frye to flourish and might be the death knell for old-school journalists such as Cal McAffrey. As the death of Sonia Baker emerges, the online media goes into a frenzy, with speculation about her death being either suicide, murder or an accident, whilst rumours about Collins’ private life go into overdrive. Updating the original series into the present day allows MacDonald to make these observations, also including those involving the relationship between politics and the press and the indendence of journalism, which he also does regarding the current political situation in the US. There’s far more a conspiracy factor about this version, with thinly veiled references to organisations such as Haliburton, who have been involved in both the destruction and reconstruction of Iraq. Perhaps it feels as though there’s more at stake here, that the impact of the potential conspiracy is greater, although in a true twist of storytelling, MacDonald copies Abbott’s conceit of pulling the rug from under our feet.
One can’t help but draw comparisons between this feature film and the original series, and where this version suffers most is with casting. The troubled production history of the film has been well-documented, with Brad Pitt and Edward Norton originally having been cast as McAffrey and Collins respectively. To Crowe’s credit, he probably surpasses any expectations we might have had of Pitt, who would have made a more clean-cut version of McAffrey, who’s supposed to be a throwback to a bygone era. Affleck, however, creates a rather blank depiction of Collins, supposedly a politician of conviction, albeit with lapses in personal judgement. Supporting performances are also mixed; ranging from Jeff Daniels as a corrupt colleague of Collins to Jason Bateman’s bizarre performance as Dominic Foy. Of course given, the high calibre of acting talent in the original television series, it’s not surprising that the performances don’t quite match up. ‘State of Play’ remains an entertaining but uneven remake of an exceptional television series. Some aspects of updating the story have worked, some haven’t. Perhaps it was always on a hiding to nothing but if the press ever needed a film that reaffirms its value in a changing, multimedia age, ‘State of Play’ is that film.