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State of Play

State of Play

Rated PG-13, 118 min. Directed by Kevin Macdonald. Starring Russell Crowe, Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams, Robin Wright Penn, Helen Mirren, Jason Bateman, Jeff Daniels.

REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., April 17, 2009

Devotees of the original six-hour BBC miniseries State of Play, which was created by Paul Abbott and aired in the UK in 2003, could be forgiven for reacting less than enthusiastically to news of an American remake. The original – an adrenalized, all-terrain thriller that ravaged institutions and ideals from Fleet Street to Downing – was television at its finest. Why mess with greatness? Turns out this redo doesn't: It neither embarrasses the original nor is superior to it in any way. But it does make a case for its own contemporary relevance by cannily shifting the baddie from Big Oil to a monopolistic private security firm and by introducing into its tale of investigative journalism the rift between print and online. Cal McAffrey (Crowe) is very much legion to the former; he's a rumply, old-school reporter at the fictional Washington Globe, prickling at new ownership's insistence that A1 stories on sex scandals sell the most papers. The Globe's Capitol Hill-beat blogger, Della Frye (McAdams), is working on a doozy of one, in fact: the sudden death of a legal researcher (and mistress) to married Congressman Stephen Collins (Affleck), who is currently heading a high-profile investigation into the shady private security firm PointCorp. Cal, who used to be Stephen's college roommate, sniffs a conspiracy in the mix and teams up with Della to connect the dots between a series of murders, the character assassination of the congressman, and PointCorp. (The pervasive evil of PointCorp is unsubtly signified in a number of cutaway shots of helicopters looming, Big Brother-like: Is the airspace of our nation's capital really so cluttered?) The screenwriters – top-line talents Tony Gilroy, Billy Ray, and Matthew Carnahan are all credited – do an impressive job in paring back the story (the investigation itself is almost comically compressed to only a few days), but that leaves little room for character shadings. Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) has assembled a cast of professionals such as Crowe, McAdams, and Mirren, who can be guaranteed to do good work no matter what they're in, Bateman, usually stuck with playing prigs, has a deliciously twitchy turn as a dirty PR guy, but there's a giant vacuum sucking up space at the center of the film. Affleck, who already has a facile, forever-frat quality to him (I'd wager it's part of his charm), looks a decade too young to plausibly play Crowe's roommate, Wright Penn's husband, a decorated war hero, and an esteemed congressman. It's a crucial role that calls for a number of about-faces – is he a crusader or corrupt, the used or the user? – and Affleck simply doesn't have the heft to pull it off. Maybe sensing a weak spot, Macdonald shifts his focus almost exclusively to Cal's hunt for the truth. Thematically, the forest gets a bit lost for the trees – there's a fundamental, unaddressed irony in the film's conclusion that I won't spoil here – but there's still an undeniable satisfaction to be had in an intelligently executed thriller. And stay for the credit reel: Macdonald, a former documentarian, does nothing more showy than chart the nuts-and-bolts process of printing, assembling, and distributing that dead horse, the newspaper, but it's a stylistic masterstroke.
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