I settled in for a screening of the year's first big prestige picture: State of Play, a political thriller starring Oscar laureate Russell Crowe as a crusading newsman and Ben Affleck as a prominent Congressman whose career is threatened by a sex-and-murder scandal. This is my kind of cinema sirloin, organic and artfully prepared. Yet something in me anticipated leftovers. The film is a distillation of a 2003 BBC miniseries, also called State of Play; and I'd recently seen and revered that show. Not that the American movie couldn't have improved on the British series. It's just that, lately, a decent film has trouble matching the best TV.
We happen to be in a not-so-hit period for movies, and an excellent one for long-form TV drama. Shows like Mad Men and Big Love in America, and Sex Traffic and Little Dorrit in Britain, are deft where feature films, even the highly hyped Oscar contenders, can be coarse one a whispered revelation, the other a shock-therapy harangue. For a handy compare-and-contrast, check out the small- and big-screen versions of State of Play. You'll see the difference between a vital work of popular art and a patched-up retread. It's almost enough to make a movie critic wish he could watch television good television for a living. (See TIME's top 10 TV series of 2008)
We meet Cal McAffrey (Crowe), star reporter and resident curmudgeon of the Washington Globe, as he's pursuing what seems to be the all-too-routine murder of a drug dealer. Another Globe staffer, perky bloggista Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), is digging for sexual dirt attending the relationship of a Capitol Hill researcher, dead in a train accident, to her boss, Congressman Stephen Collins (Affleck). Cal muscles in on Della's story because in college he was close to the budding politician and even closer to Stephen's wife, Anne (Robin Wright Penn). As Cal and Della form an uneasy alliance, they begin trying to weave a coherent pattern out of dozens of threads: Stephen's affair with the dead woman; his estrangement from his wife; his chairing of a subcommittee that could issue an explosive report to cripple a powerful industry; the conniving of party bosses and lobbyists to suppress or manipulate the truth ... whatever that might be.
This is straight from Paul Abbott's BBC script for the BBC series, which has a beautiful narrative shape, gradually expanding from the two murders to a wider conspiracy, then narrowing to reveal the killer. The movie is seriously compressed, as a 2-hour film must be from a 5-hour 41-minute TV show, but not fatally crippled. It reduces the number of reporters on the story from five to two, as well as ditching the subplot of a tryst Cal has with Anne. In the TV series Cal has two houseguests. Stephen and then Anne; it seems just the tiniest bit compromising for a reporter to house the subject of his story, then bed the man's wife. But Cal, even on threat of being fired, can't renounce his new love. (The urgent voice of the viewer, by about the fourth hour: Dump her!) The movie has only Stephen visit Cal's place, and no affair with Anne. (See Richard Corliss's "Top 10 Jesus Films")
While ironing out the original story, the movie adds a wrinkle that will impress many a reviewer with its poignancy. Here the main reporters are career antagonists representing two generations, indeed two species, of daily journalism: he an ink-stained kvetch of the print era, she an online blogger looking for the gossip angle. They might be Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell from the classic newspaper comedy His Girl Friday, except the tension is all professional, nothing romantic. (No time for lovey-dovery; must keep main story moving.) But it is perfectly symbiotic; the two use their complementary skills of wheedling, flirting, threatening to find out who done it and why. Newspaper fans and employees will be pleased to know that in the film, as in the series, all the reporters are smart, indefatigable and if you allow for Cal's friendship with Stephen scrupulously honest. Aren't we terrific?
Slovenly, with long, stringy hair, and weirdly resembling the adult film star Ron Jeremy, Crowe disappears rather ostentatiously into the role; he's like a hedgehog trying to hide behind a Ping Pong ball. Affleck puts his stiff affability to handsome use, and McAdams reads all her lines correctly. The showy role of a public-relations creep named Dominic Foy, a friend of the murdered woman and a pusher of questionable corporate agendas goes to Jason Bateman. He's most entertaining, in a squirm-inducing way, but lacks the preening, queening elan of Mark Warren, the BBC's Dominic.
The movie's script is credited to three heavyweights, all veterans of political suspense film: Matthew Michael Carnahan, who wrote The Kingdom (G-men in a middle East war) and Lions for Lambs (handwringing over Afghanistan); Tony Gilroy, of Michael Clayton and Bourne movie fame; and Billy Ray, who did the magazine-corruption film Shattered Glass and the CIA exposé Breach. When a trio of top names is on a script, you can guess that each worked consecutively on the material, trying to slim it down or punch it up; and that each was employed to fix the "improvements" the previous man had made. It's been reported that Brad Pitt had been signed to play Cal, but departed the project after difficulties with the script. Pitt was right: none of the writers had solved the adaptation.
Turns out that Abbott's story hadn't been stretched to fill six hours, it was designed that way, with climaxes or cliffhangers at the end of each episode. The script inhabits a large structure that allows breathing room for the characters and situations; the movie tries to keep up with the story, but huffs and puffs like an out-of-shape runner trying to turn a marathon into a sprint. It's got most of the original's text but not its texture. The TV show's director, David Yates, sometimes erred on the side of camerabatics, but he lent the enterprise pace and flair, and assured that each of the story's 20 or so major characters had a life of his or her own. (From State of Play Yates graduated to the Harry Potter franchise; he will have directed four of the final eight Potters.) The film's director, Kevin Macdonald, who did The Last King of Scotland, is not a flair fellow. The chase scenes interpolated into this version have no special oomph; the encounters no residual kick. Paging Ridley Scott? Oh, sorry, too late.
So there it is: another film that can't compete with a TV show. But I'm not turning in my movie-critic's license quite yet. If there's one thing I learned from both versions of State of Play, it's that a journalist never gives up.