Robin Wright Penn
On paper, State of Play looks a dead-cert, with its a-list cast and Kevin McDonald (The Last King Of Scotland) at the helm. But the path from acclaimed television series to US big screen adaptation can be fraught with peril: for every Traffic there is a Brideshead Revisited.
With the action uprooted from London to Washington DC, State of Plays story begins with two seemingly unrelated deaths a petty thief shot dead, and the assistant-cum-mistress of Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck) killed by a subway train. Seeking the help of brash news journo Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe), the pair discover clues pointing to a high level cover-up.
It all sounds very exciting, but it is also unexpectedly thoughtful: the influence of All The Presidents Men is clear, though its hard to imagine Robert Redfords Woodward hanging off the roof of a moving car while Deep Throat fires a few rounds at his head: despite the intelligence, State of Play cant quite resist the Hollywood temptation to turn its schlubby, wisecracking hero into improbably adept action man when formula demands.
In fact its characterization that suffers the most in the adaptation process, with Bourne scripter and Michael Clayton writer-director Tony Gilroy impressively condensing the BBCs six hours of densely layered plot into just over two.
Events trip along nicely but the people are frequently reduced to stereotypes: shrewd and jaded blogger Della (Rachel McAdams) is now a nave ingnue, while the casting of the glacial Robin Wright Penn as Collins wife ensures that the demi-love triangle setup never has an iota of the passion it needs to order to feel anything other than superfluous. Even Helen Mirren, playing the icy Brit card to superbly enjoyable effect as Cal and Dellas ball-busting editor, begins to feel weighed down by her one-note role.
But the single greatest downfall is the casting of Affleck. Having made an accomplished directorial debut last year with Gone Baby Gone, hopes were that he might leave the acting to his brother Casey and focus on his strengths behind the camera. Alas, it was not to be. There are two significant moments at which Collins receives disturbing news and is required to react almost entirely without words. David Morrisseys original performance was a master class in nuanced expression; in such moments pain, shock, guilt, perhaps self-loathing, all played out across his face, tempered consistently by his awareness of the need to dissemble.
Affleck, charged with the same task, has the unfortunate tendency to look more than anything like a man pondering what to have for lunch. Collins becomes a whiny, one-note simpleton rather than the flawed, morally dubious and emotionally volatile man hes written to be, so that a final scene that should be electrifying indeed, was electrifying when played between Morrissey and John Simm feels painfully limp and anticlimactic.
That the film remains as solidly effective as it does is a credit to Crowe, whose slovenly, razor-sharp Cal is the true protagonist here in contrast to the more ensemble-driven series. His scenes with McAdams goes some way to filling the Affleck-shaped void in the storys human dynamics; theres some fun and pertinent bickering between them with regard to the newsprint v. blogging divide, and one or two understatedly sweet moments (he presents her with a necklace of pens to try and persuade her to write rather than type once in a while) that feel genuinely fresh.
Jason Bateman also impresses in his brief role as mercurial party boy Dominic Foy, oscillating convincingly from detached self-possession to emotional collapse in the space of two scenes. The setting of Washington, meanwhile, actually lends the media scandal surrounding Collins a sense of heightened urgency, given Americas fiercely personality-driven political system where politicians are celebrities first and foremost.
Tense, tightly scripted and offering more food for thought than most of this seasons releases, State of Play still disappoints as an adaptation of its source, largely thanks to the miscasting of one pivotal role. Add another star if you havent seen the series.