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.