Review: State of Play

Since I’ve just been watching the DVD of “State of Play” this evening, I thought I’d attempt to keep a little blogging momentum going with a potted review:

This is a tough film to review for anyone who know and loves the TV serial on which its based. You keep getting distracted by comparisons. In many ways its remarkably faithful to its source material; but of course it needs to be trimmed and refined to work as a two hour film. It does this startlingly well, but inevitably in the process much of the strength of the original is lost in the process. However – and very surprisingly for a Hollywood remake – much is also gained.

The TV series was written by Paul Abbott, who freely admitted he knew nothing about thrillers or politics or journalism and just used it as a background to a central human story about two friends. This film turns that on its head: it’s all about the journalism, and the thriller and politics aspects have been polished by skilled veterans of the genres (moving them to Washington and making it about the privatisation of homeland security à la Blackwater really ramps up the stakes form the murky TV original). It’s just that the human aspects of the drama have been leaned down to make room, and the characters culled.

In the TV series, every single character was alive and vibrant, even the most minor ones. Here, only two of the characters really flourish – Cal and Della (who gets a much better deal from the film than the TV series) played by Russell Crowe and Rachel McAdams, both very strong. There’s a second ring of reasonable characters – Stephen (a rather bland Ben Affleck – presumably intended), Ann (Robin Wright Penn in a fairly by-the-numbers wrong-wife role) and Helen Mirren’s editor Cameron (not a patch on Bill Nighy in the series, disappointingly normal and unmemorable) – but everyone else is a cipher who barely gets a name. Roles that made stars of James McAvoy and Marc Warren barely register here even with the likes of Jason Bateson in the latter’s role of Dominic Foy – somewhat miscast for a part that needs to be much larger than life.

Instead, it’s the paper – which in the TV series was a very familiar by-the-numbers TV portrayal of the press – that becomes a far more complex and nuanced character, thoroughly updated to today’s concerns about online blogging, media takeover, falling circulation and the death of the industry. It really comes across well – surely the finest on-screen representation of a newspaper since All The President’s Men (with honourable mentions of The Paper and Zodiac) and the closing credits sequence of the paper going to press evoke a very sad elegiac sense of the death of the traditional paper.

The film has some great tense moments (fittingly the best is in an underground parking structure, surely itself a homage to All the President’s Men) but lacks a little tension overall, but it still ends up being an intelligent, sophisticated, well-made film with more than a little sense of the truly great 70s paranoia classics like Parallax.

Rating: **** (out of 5)

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