See? It can work sometimes. Paul Abbot’s six-part drama State Of Play was one of the highlights of the BBC’s output over the past half decade or so. Boasting an intelligent, weaving narrative, a gradually building momentum and some excellent performances (from the likes of John Simm, David Morrissey, Kelly Macdonald and Bill Nighy), it was a fabulous political thriller that convincingly stretched a TV budget in the process.
Normally, of course, when Hollywood gets its hands on something of that quality and presses ahead with a movie version, the end result is not a good one. And particularly right now, with the lack of quality thrillers coming out of the blockbuster movie system, the signs were really not good.
State Of Play, though, is a terrific movie. Transposing the action from London to Washington, and cleverly updating it to contrast the hardened newspaper reporter with the modern day blog-writing hack, it mirrors the TV show by kicking off with a quick and brutal shooting. Leaving one dead and one hanging on, it’s not long before there’s another casualty, in this case the assistant to Congressman Stephen Collins (played by Ben Affleck). Collins is an old friend of that aforementioned hardened reporter at the Washington Globe, Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe), and with new owners at the paper looking for quick results, his editor, Cameron Lynne (played here by Helen Mirren, taking the role played by Bill Nighy in the TV version), there’s pressure to deliver the quick and easy story.
But McAffrey smells something deeper, and eventually in tandem with Rachel McAdams’ Della Frye, he starts unweaving the threads of a complicated and gripping conspiracy. Meticulously plotted, and condensing convincingly the six hours of TV drama to around a third of that, State Of Play emerges as a genuinely excellent thriller.
What’s particularly impressive about it is just how convincingly it sits in the ecosystem that links politics, the media and law enforcement, and then threads an intelligent and understandable narrative through the heart of it. You could argue it’s a little keen to pull a twist or two here and there, but the end result is as gripping as anything Hollywood has put out this year.
Much of the credit for that must go to director Kevin Macdonald, who here follows up The Last King Of Scotland by returning to his documentary-style roots. His adopting that kind of style for State Of Play pays off handsomely, and he proves too that he can stage a tense sequence with some style as well, particularly when McAffrey finds himself under threat in a parking garage.
His cast serve him well. Russell Crowe is a wise choice as McAffrey, a man who drives a 1990 car and works on a computer years out of date, and while you don’t get the impression that he’s stretching himself too much, he’s a solid centre for the film. Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams too both turn in solid work, and the supporting cast is rounded out with small yet impressive performances from the likes of Jason Bateman, Robin Wright Penn and Jeff Daniels.
While we’re not talking a quality up there with some of Hollywood’s best, State Of Play is nonetheless the first mainstream quality intelligent thriller to churn out of the system in some time (with the exception of David Fincher’s excellent, and superior, Zodiac). There was thus, sadly, an inevitably that its box office would be dwarfed by Angels & Demons (a far less satisfactory thriller!), but it’s most certainly worth giving a spin to on disc if you missed it on the big screen.
The near-19 minute making of eventually gets quite interesting. Once the back-patting is done, there’s some quite interesting discussion about the varying depth of field used depending who was in shot, some on the creation of materials such as the newspapers used in the film (and in the world of 1080p, you can pause the disc and happily read them if you want to), and the creation of a 20,000 square feet newsroom set, with very specific perspectives (and the influences from All The President’s Men). It won’t be everyone’s bag, but I thought that much more of this than I was expecting was really quite interesting.
There’s also a pair of deleted scenes, running to around four minutes. They’re both worth watching, too, and could easily have made the final cut. Which makes a refreshing change where deleted scenes are concerned.
The visual presentation is a testing one, given the variations in the shooting approach that are apparent throughout the film (which are expanded on briefly in the documentary). However, there are no grumbles here: this is a clear, crisp presentation that never blows your socks off, but comfortably leaves with the impression that you’ve had a good quality upgrade for your Blu-ray money. The audio is also strong, and the surround sound track, particularly, accentuates the really very enjoyable score to the film, as well as not shirking the louder moments.
The Film:The Disc:
State Of Play is out on Blu-ray now.