The movie State of Play is equal to its brilliant source (the BBC television program aired in 2003). Until the end. Then it gets contrived and caves in. The movie becomes an average thriller; the BBC version never is average. From beginning to end it's first-rate.
When one compares the two versions, the BBC program prevails. It sustains the thematic power which the movie squanders.
Since the tv version is six hours and the movie version is a little more than two hours, the movie has to sharpen, streamline, change, and cut. The changes and cuts drop some special assets.
Both versions share a basic plot: a journalist Cal McAffrey looks into the murder of a petty thief and finds it may be connected to the death of a young female research assistant to an aspiring politician Stephen Collins, who is leading a governmental committee looking into corporate corruption. Cal and Stephen were roommates in college.
The media feverishly expose that the married Collins and his research assistant had an affair, and her death may have been suicide. Cal doesn't think so. He and other journalists at their newspaper set out to find the true story, which may implicate a powerful corporation.
A major theme of both the tv show and the movie is the power of the press. In both shows, old school journalism is being replaced by gossip, celebrity, government influence, and profiteering.
But the movie takes it further. In the movie the contemporary newspaper is dying.
Another crucial theme in both versions is the insidious power of a corporation. In the tv program it is Big Oil; the movie updates and Americanizes it into Private Security (Halliburton).
How newspapers and corporations function in the modern world is the crux of both shows.
The casts of the two different versions are both very talented. The movie is essentially Russell Crowe's picture; the BBC program is more an ensemble piece. Crowe portrays Cal McAffrey as assertive, potent, and fiercely committed.
John Simm plays Cal in the tv version as more laid-back, more fitful and complex. Simm is a popular actor, who also appeared on British tv as Sam Tyler in Life on Mars.
Both Crowe and Simm are effective, but obviously Crowe has more star power.
In the other key major role Ben Affleck plays the politician Stephen Collins in the movie; David Morrissey is Collins in the tv show. Affleck is a limited but capable actor. He shows emotion by bringing dewy tears to his eyes. Affleck is mostly bland in the movie, while Morrissey is mostly glum.
But Morrissey rises to an intense emotional pitch in the climactic scenes that seems beyond Affleck. Morrissey shatters glumness with volatile anger and emotional collapse.
Also in a scene in which Stephen beats up another character, Morrissey's Collins leaves him bloody and hospitalized, while Affleck just knocks him around.
The character who is beaten is Dominic Foy, played by Jason Bateman in the movie and Marc Warren on tv. Bateman gives a flashy tours de force performance as a sleazy C-list publicist. Warren's appearance is extended since he appears in five of the six segments. Warren is a cross between Malcolm McDowell and Wile E. Coyote. He also appeared as Dracula on British television. Bateman brings immediate vitality to his role; Warren's is more dragged out. The fact that it's cut down in the movie doesn't weaken the role; in fact, it sharpens it.
But there are changes and cuts that lessen the original. In the movie the editor of the newspaper is played by Helen Mirren; in the tv show the role is played by Bill Nighy. Mirren isn't given much to do except try to declare the changing status of newspapers. She's formidable, but the role is one-dimensional and doesn't allow her development.
In the tv version the remarkable Bill Nighy steals much of the show. He's a gem, just saying one word -- "rep-re-hen-sible." Or two words -- "how fey." He grimaces at how he said something fatuous. "Let's be fair, Stephen," he repeats with disdain.
Nighy snorts with amusement, is bemused, ponders, glowers and casts meaningful furtive glances. He's a wonderful performer squeezing something memorable out of every scene he's in. Like Jason Robards, Jr. in All the President's Men (1976), Nighy makes the role his own. Mirren -- as great an actress as she is -- only borrows it.
In the movie the editor's role is vastly diminished, but another interesting major character is totally cut. In the tv program James McAvoy adds flair as Dan Foster, the editor's wayward son. In striped shirts, and a quick grin, McAvoy joins up with Cal and Della as an important third investigative reporter. Both Nighy and McAvoy bring some key zest and intelligence that mis missing from the movie.
In the movie Rachel McAdams plays Della Frye, a blogger with the Washington newspaper, who is mentored by the intrepid old school journalist Cal. She's bright and perceptive. In the tv show Kelly Macdonald plays her -- she's named Della Smith in the original. Like John Simm, Kelly Macdonald is less immediately assertive than her movie counterpart. The length of the tv show allows her more time and room to evolve.
The direction of both versions is effective. The movie is directed by Kevin Macdonald, who directed The Last King of Scotland (2006) with McAvoy. He's able to capture the pulse of a thriller, although the big action scene in a garage is nothing new. This patented injection of action isn't even in the tv program.
David Yates directed the BBC series. He also directed the character-driven, offbeat, very liberal The Girl in the Cafe (2005) for tv, starring Nighy and Macdonald. Yates's movie career is on major ascendancy, since he directed Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007), and is doing the next three in the series.
Both Macdonald and Yates are directors who emphasize humanity, but Yates is given more to work with by his writer.
Paul Abbott, who created and wrote the BBC program, is an executive producer of the American film. He was the sole writer credited for the British series.
The American movie has three veteran writers, and once again too many bakers spoil the pretzel. They're too cute by three.
The three writers like to push beyond reality and seem smitten with flashbacks and time warps in their past work. Matthew Michael Carnahan wrote the lame Lions for Lambs (2007), Tony Gilroy wrote the duplicitous Duplicity (2009), and Billy Ray did the screenplay for Shattered Glass (2003). The three do a tango of trickery.
The movie changes some names, which seems pointless. The reporter Della Smith (not an American name?) becomes Della Frye. The editor's name is changed from Cameron Foster to Cameron Lynne (Lynne is a better surname for Helen Mirren?). And DCI William Bell becomes Detective Donald Bell. You really made your money, writer guys.
However the writers do make some promising strides to reveal the venal pressures that contemporary society has inflicted on the media, and the craven power of corporations. They create strong American dialogue. Their Americanizing of the British program has potential to strike a major blow for quality and integrity in American culture. They come so close.
But then they veer off course. The movie seems to come to a satisfactory conclusion, but suddenly it starts up again and adds a twist. A thriller should not lurch at the end.
The writers take a conventional path to easy resolution. What should have been a thought-provoking conclusion is replaced by a gimmicky trick ending. Provocative themes are thrown away with the twisty plot.
One applauds the movie's attention to the state of newspapers, but the movie's most crucial theme is thrown away.
The British tv program's denouement ended with Cal McAffrey, emotionally spent, standing in the press room watching the printing machines roll. It was a perfect ending.
The movie tries to pay a little obeisance to this idea after the movie's story is over by having footage of the presses running as the final credits roll. But it seems more an afterthought than the tv program's essence.
The movie plays the Hollywood game. Hollywood's deck always seems to have a joker. The BBC version doesn't shut down its intelligence.
For that reason alone, the original State of Play is superior.
For a change of pace, you might want to listen to interviews that I conducted in the 70s and 80s, some of which were published in my book Voices from the Set: The Film Heritage Interviews (2000).
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