If you haven’t seen the BBC miniseries “State of Play,” stop reading this and watch. It’s one of the most enjoyable and gripping programs ever put on TV. If you can’t get your hands on it, a new American remake, which turns the six-episode series into a 2-hour movie, is pretty good, too.
The plot is still a twisty nerve-wracker, the type of quadruple-crossing paranoiac’s dream that’s too smartly constructed to fail. The screenplay passed through four hands, but all the chefs managed to boil the events down to their essentials without losing too much in the process. It’s a sign of their success that we don’t much miss the entire plot strands and characters they tossed out.
There are far too many twists and turns to recount here, but the story unfolds after a young man is found murdered in Washington, D.C., Washington Globe reporter Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) starts following the story and he winds up entangling himself with the capital’s latest scandal. It involves an affair between Rep. Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck) — who happens to be an old friend of McAffrey’s — and a staffer of his, who not-so-coincidentally has just been killed by a moving subway car. Looming over all of this is defense contractor, bastion of evil and blatant Blackwater ripoff PointCorp, which Collins is investigating. Clearly, it’s a story made for the newspapers, the kind of investigative bombshell that any journalist covets.
Although the story has emerged nearly unharmed, the same can’t be said for many of the actors. Gaunt and self-righteous, Affleck never manages to make much of Collins, mostly because he’s not given the time. It’s not an especially bad performance — just a bland one. His wife, played by Robin Wright Penn, is also dealt a particularly bad hand. Here, she’s reduced to a couple of scenes in which she whines about missed opportunities — a far cry from the complicated and alluring character in the miniseries.
But it’s clear that this version of “State of Play” doesn’t, at its heart, give a damn about politics, or defense contractors, or relationships. It’s an unashamed, down-on-one-knee love letter to newspapers that rejects all that newfangled online stuff for the smell of the newsprint and the thrill of the banner headline. Never mind that the medium is currently thrashing about in its death throes; it’s still the one place, as Crowe says at one point, that will print the truth. This is in straight-up “All the President’s Men” territory, and it is territory I will admit I adore. “State of Play” is for those obsessed with the mechanics of reporting, with the idea of the go-for-broke crusade. The remake even throws in a gun-shy corporate owner for the newsroom to defy.
In contrast to the perfunctory way the film writers treat politics, they make the parts for reporters nice and chewy. Tubby and disheveled Crowe, with his dirty-looking hair that hangs lank at his shoulders and his shaggy beard, barrels through the movie with gusto. And although Helen Mirren, who plays the Globe editor, phones her performance in, it doesn’t matter much: crusty and profane, she’s enormous fun.
Still, there’s an elegiac, retro tone to this celebration. It’s hard not to wonder whether we’re seeing the last of our newspaper heroes.
A gung-ho paper, conspiracies on top of conspiracies, insane revelation after insane revelation, a driving, thumping score — In the end, what’s not to like? “State of Play” is the kind of solidly built liberal thriller that’s a welcome respite from the usual mid-spring dross. It’s not great, but it’ll definitely do.