Big government getting in bed with corrupt private conglomerates. The fresh-faced Congressman hell-bent on bringing said scandal to light. The uncovered infidelity which threatens his power base, and the crumpled investigative journalist who must resolve his personal interest in the story with the legitimate needs of the press and his own corporate bosses. This should be the basis for a crackerjack thriller -- and it actually was when BBC scribe Paul Abbott crafted the six-episode series State of Play back in 2003. As with most successful foreign exports, Hollywood came calling, and now we have the big screen version starring Russell Crowe, Ben Affleck, and Helen Mirren. Instead of expanding the suspense, however, this ragtag, routine experience is effective, if perfunctory.
When the research assistant to brash young House member Stephen Collins (Affleck) dies in a mysterious accident, the press has a field day with the politician's possible adultery. Naturally, the Washington Globe and its crack staff, including reporter Cal McCaffrey (Crowe), blogger Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), and editor Cameron Lynne (Mirren), are exploring every angle. But there's a catch. You see, McCaffrey and Collins were college roommates, and they've maintained a strong friendship ever since. They've even shared the affections of the Congressman's current wife Anne (Robin Wright Penn). Article continues below
When a link is established between the aide, the death of a junkie, a metal briefcase full of incriminating photos, a hyper PR agent named Dominic Foy (Jason Bateman), and the military contractor Pointcorp, it seems like a clear case of influence via strongarm tactics. But McCaffrey knows better than to believe the cover story. Instead, he wants to dig deeper, to expose the truth once and for all and clear his friend's name -- if he can.
When you look over the credits of State of Play, you instantly see the problem with the film. Any work that features the competing ideas of screenwriters Matthew Michael Carnahan (Lions for Lambs, The Kingdom), Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton, the Bourne trilogy), and Billy Ray (Breach, Flightplan), is going to end up suffering from "too many cooks" syndrome. It's not that the plot offered is so complicated as to lose the audience. Instead, State of Play purposefully keeps simplifying things to the point where most seasoned filmgoers can guess what's coming next before it even happens.
The clues are obvious. Affleck putting on airs of authority and control? He's destined for a fall. Crowe continually picking on newbie McAdams? They'll become partners. A Halliburton like company trying to corner the market on U.S. security contracts? They'll be overloaded with ex-military men eager to play assassin. Perhaps had the film been turned over to someone with a clearer track record in the genre, such obviousness would work. But Kevin Macdonald, the documentarian turned feature filmmaker (The Last King of Scotland) is new to the whole "edge of your seat" thing. He's good with actors, great with location, but lacking in creating a sense of dread. We never fear for anyone here, not even when a poorly-defined killer with a cartoonish scowl starts stalking our stars.
Carried over six separate hours, like the BBC original, this material would have a chance to sink in and strengthen. Instead, we wind up with a serviceable entertainment that never makes a strong cinematic statement. Crowe does good disheveled media Messiah, while Affleck and Mirren have their own strong scenes. McAdams is more or less lost, and the last act arrival of Bateman as a slimeball seems wildly out of place. As with any translation, originality gets lost in the desire to adapt. State of Play is not bad. In fact, it's quite good. But one can't help but feel that there is something great trapped inside this by-the-book potboiler.