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State of Play

April 21, 2009

I admit, I went in with prejudice. Paul Abbott’s State of Play was a terrific back-to-the-Old-School piece of TV drama. Reminiscent of Edge of Darkness, I guess, it had a proper extended run, a complex grown-up story arc, and the best the Beeb can afford (David Morrissey, Bill Nighy, John Simm) acting their little socks off. And so, a big Hollywood blockbuster, with big Hollywood blockbuster-y people (Russell Crowe, Ben Affleck, Jeff Daniels); well, wouldn’t you be worried?

I fully expected chases, and cars flipping into the Potomac. I fully expected saccharine kisses at the tensest moments. I fully expected a total sell-out. Isn’t it awful that I would do that? But, hey. We’ve all been disappointed with the big screen adaptations of much-loved Brit creations. Remember Thomas and the Magic Railroad?

I’m not joking. Over on this side of the pond, seeing John Simm’s darkly feral Cal replaced by a corpulent and long-haired Crowe (this is a fat Russell movie, as opposed to a muscular Russell movie) was as eye-rolling a moment as Robert Downey Jr. being cast as Sherlock Holmes, or – hehehe, imagine – Jude Law as Dr Watson, or even Guy Ritchie pretending to be a film maker. It just seems wrong.

Director Kevin Macdonald, though, is too cute to the vibe to fall into any potholes. This is the man who made Touching the Void, after all…

Macdonald’s legacy helps. Bringing the intelligence of One Day in September (his documentary about the Black September terrorists at the Munich Olympics) and the non-action action of The Last King of Scotland into convergence, what he’s managed to do here is create a properly tense adult thriller that burns consistently and effectively without recourse to absurd set-pieces, explosions or unnecessary icky stuff.

In fact, the only real action takes place in the first minute, with a Bourne-esque wobbly camera race across a Washington street and into an alleyway. This is a neat trick. Macdonald is just kidding with you. The Bourne camera is put away immediately after and the film shifts happily into what it feels easiest doing; being talky and smart and labyrinthine. There are several more you-thought-we-were-going-to-do-that-huh? moments, where the film smirks at the BBC’s concerned and restless demographic, but it never really cocks a snook at them, merely has a bit of fun and then puts their mind at ease by being simply very very good at what it does.

For the uninitiated it’s a dark tale of conspiracy at the top of Washington’s power tree, uncovered by journos. That’s all I’m prepared to say, really. It’s a good story, a tad too complex in the final reel perhaps, which I guess may be the result of condensing 6 hours down to 2, but that’s the most minor of grumbles. Everything else works; even Crowe, of whom I’m normally wary, pulls off that Master & Commander trick and wins you over. Rachel McAdams is feisty and watchable in the cub reporter role, and swapping Nighy for Helen Mirren is inspired (no-one, I imagine, would be able to say “fuck you very much” with the same level of venom).

What I liked about State of Play was that it focussed on morality and the shades of grey therein. It’s not just about good men and bad men, but the mess of complex decision making, and how easy it is to find yourself up to your neck in it. There are no explosions. There are no car chases. There are guns, but not many. There is no CGI, or at least, no moments that make you think, “nice CGI”. Everything that happens happens relentlessly in the real, physical world, and as such you can believe that even the chubbiest of reporters can be a hero. Talky, dark and tense, don’t let the kid-friendly certification fool you. This is grown up.

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