Review: State of play

By Jack Garigliano

The triumph of the American media during the Watergate scandal brought about a new, edgier perception of the press. Suddenly, for Americans, journalism was more than a morally dubious way to earn a living. It was full of drama and intrigue, and bursting with sex.

The subsequent movie adaptation of the scandal, All the President’s Men, featured a dashing Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, and their exquisitely coiffed and feathered hair as they unraveled an exciting and hot-button political scandal.

The new movie adaptation of BBC miniseries State of Play continues the American tradition of turning journalism into a turbulent political thriller. The movie follows grizzled D.C. reporter Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) and his rakishly tousled mane, vaguely reminiscent of Hoffman’s in All the President’s Men, as he works to uncover the mystery behind the death of the staff assistant of close friend U.S. congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck). As the homicide investigation winds its tumultuous course, the movie takes a cursory look at the relationship between politics and the press, and between McAffrey and Collins.

The investigation of the murder and subsequent political conspiracy is compelling and well-paced, with a minimum amount of plotholes or hammed performances. The movie ultimately entertains the whole way through, thanks in part to a smart narrative and a strong supporting cast. Helen Mirren could act her role as stock-snarly newspaper editor in her sleep, but spits barely enough venom into her lines to keep her time onscreen worthwhile, and Jason Bateman does a deliciously sleazy turn as a drug-soaked PR agent.

However, while State of Play is a smart, competent thriller, it never really transcends convention to reach the promise set by the original British miniseries. The BBC miniseries managed to explore the nuanced, entrenched relationship between London’s journalism and politics in addition to following the homicide investigation. The movie adaptation, however, Americanises the original concept in a much larger way than by simply moving the setting from London to Washington, D.C.

The American preoccupation with and romanticisation of the press and investigative work has also seeped into the adaptation’s journey across the Atlantic, to its detriment. The movie devotes more attention to the glamour of uncovering political conspiracies than to the press-politics dynamic that made the miniseries memorable. Too much time is squandered on weaving back and forth through the twists of the political scandal, with more than enough shots of Crowe walking hurriedly in time to an edgy bass-heavy soundtrack, his head lowered, his brow furrowed as he thinks Really Big Thoughts. Several scenes are even staged pointlessly in the Watergate hotel, as if for no other reason than to recall the golden days of investigative journalism.

Worse, the relationship between Crowe and Affleck’s characters, originally the two central roles, is overlooked for much of the movie and seems underdeveloped when it finally becomes crucial to the plot. Someone mumbles something about being college roommates, they share a stiff, wooden conversation in the beginning of the movie, then the reporter takes the reins for the rest of the movie. When the two characters finally grapple with each other over issues like trust and friendship, the emotions splattered across the screen feel sudden and unearned. The movie works well as an engaging thriller, but don’t expect much more than that.