“STATE OF PLAY” (2003) Review

“STATE OF PLAY” (2003) Review

Three years ago, a political thriller starring Russell Crowe and Ben Affleck was released in the movie theaters. The movie turned out to be based upon a six-part BBC miniseries of the same name – “STATE OF PLAY”.

Created by Paul Abbott and directed by David Yates, “STATE OF PLAY told the story of a London newspaper’s investigation into the death of a young woman named Sonia Baker, who worked as a researcher for a Member of Parliament named Stephen Collins. The miniseries also focused on the relationship between Collins and the newspaper’s leading journalist, Cal McCaffrey, who used to be his former campaign manager.

“STATE OF PLAY” was so well received that it garnered a Best Actor BAFTA award for Bill Nighy, for his role as McCaffrey’s editor, Cameron Foster. The miniseries also earned BAFTAs for Best Sound and Best Editing (Fiction/Entertainment); and it won awards major awards from the Royal Television Society, Banff Television Festival, Broadcasting Press Guild, Cologne Conference, Directors Guild of Great Britain, Edgar Awards, and the Monte Carlo TV Festival. When the 2009 movie was released, critics generally gave it positive reviews, but claimed that it failed to surpass or be as equally good as the miniseries. After seeing the latter . . . well, I will eventually get to that.

The miniseries began with the murder of a young man named Kelvin Stagg in what seemed to be a drug-related killing, along with the coincidental death of Collins’ researcher, Sonia Baker. When Cal McCaffrey and his colleagues at The Herald – Foster, his son Dan, Della Smith and others, they discover that the deaths were connected via Collins’ parliamentary investigation of links between an American oil company and corrupt high-ranking British ministers. Cal and his fellow journalists also have to deal with finding a publicist associate of Sonia’s named Dominic Foy, who may have a great deal of information on how she became Collins’ researcher in the first place. And another subplot dealt with Cal renewing his interest in Collins’ recently estranged wife, Anne.

I cannot deny that “STATE OF PLAY” is a first-rate miniseries. Paul Abbott created an excellent thriller filled with murder, romance, infidelity, witty dialogue and political intrigue. One of the best aspects of Abbott’s screenplay was how the varied subplots managed to connect with the main narrative. Even Cal’s romance with Anne Collins proved to have strong connections to his search for the truth regarding Sonia’s death – especially in Episode Three. The romance provided Another aspect of “STATE OF PLAY” that I admired was the pacing established by director David Yates. Another interesting relationship that materialized from the investigation was the friendship between The Herald reporter Della Smith and Scotland Yard’s DCI William Bell. Regardless of the number of episodes in the production, Yates and Abbott’s screenplay made certain that the viewer remained fixated to the screen. Like the 2009, the miniseries did an excellent job of delving into the British journalism and political scene. More importantly, it featured first-rate action sequences. For me, the best one proved to be Scotland Yard’s attempt to capture Kelvin Scaggs and Sonia Baker’s killer in the third episode.

As much as I enjoyed “STATE OF PLAY”, I cannot deny that I found it somewhat flawed. Which is why I cannot accept the prevailing view that it was superior to its 2009 remake. Despite Yates’ pacing of the story, I feel that “STATE OF PLAY” could have been shown in at least four episodes. There were some subplots that could have used some trimming. One of them, at least for me, turned out to be the search for Dominic Foy. Actually, it took Cal, Della, Dan and the others very little time to find Dominic. But every time they found him, they lost him. This happened at least three or four times. By the time they managed to get Foy inside a hotel room for a little confession, I sighed with relief. The subplot threatened to become . . . annoying. Another subplot that threatened to become irrelevant was Cal’s dealings with Kelvin Skaggs’ older brother and mother, Sonny and Mrs. Skaggs. Johann Myers gave an intense performance as the volatile Sonny Skaggs. But the constant temper tantrums over how the press portrayed Kelvin eventually became boring. There were other sequences and subplots I could have done without – especially a road encounter between one of the reporters’ informants and oil company thugs in the last episode. And why have Stephen Collins investigate an American oil company, when it could have been easier to use a British or British-based oil company? After all, there are several oil companies operating in the United Kingdom, including the infamous BP. Although I admire Yates’ direction of the sequence featuring the capture of Sonia’s killer, Robert Bingham, I wish it had happened in the last episode. Otherwise, his death occurred too soon in my opinion.

John Simm did an excellent job in leading a first-rate cast for “STATE OF PLAY”. Despite working with the likes of Bill Nighy, David Morrissey, Polly Walker; he not only held his own. He carried the miniseries. Period. However, he was ably supported by superb performances from his co-stars. Morrissey was also commanding, yet complex as MP Stephen Collins. Although there were a few moments when his performance seemed a bit too . . . theatrical for my tastes. Nighy’s award-winning performance as Cal’s editor also seemed a little theatrical. However, he got away with it, because I feel he is a lot better with injecting a little theatricality into his acting.

Although Kelly MacDonald had made a name for herself before portraying Della Smith, she gave an excellent, yet emotional performance that resonated just right. Kelly MacDonald also managed to create a surprisingly balanced chemistry with Philip Glenister, who did an excellent job in portraying the intimidating Scotland Yard inspector. Unlike MacDonald, James McAvoy was not quite well-known when he portrayed freelance journalist, Dan Foster. But he certainly displayed the very qualities that would eventually make him a star in his sly and cheeky performance. Polly Walker did an excellent job in portraying the woman who nearly came between Cal and Stephen, the latter’s estranged wife, Anne Collins. However, Marc Warren gave one of the best performances in the miniseries as Dominic Foy, the sleazy and paranoid publicist with ties to Sonia Baker. Watching him veer between paranoia, cowardice and opportunism was really a joy to watch. “STATE OF PLAY” also benefited from fine supporting performances from the likes of Geraldine James, Benedict Wong, Deborah Findlay, Tom Burke, Johann Myers, James Laurenson and Amelia Bullmore.

I cannot deny that “STATE OF PLAY” is a first-rate miniseries filled with intrigue, thanks to Paul Abbott’s screenplay and energy, due to David Yates’ direction. It also benefited from superb acting, thanks to a cast led by John Simm and David Morrissey. But it also possessed flaws that perhaps made its acclaim just a bit overrated. I read somewhere that Abbott planned to write a sequel of some kind, featuring Simms. I hope so. Despite its flaws, “STATE OF PLAY” certainly deserved a follow-up of some kind.

Second Look: “THE BOURNE IDENTITY” (1988)

Second Look: “THE BOURNE IDENTITY” (1988)

Years after Robert Ludlum’s famous literary trilogy about an amnesiac CIA agent was published, Matt Damon starred in the movie versions of those novels between 2002 and 2007. Naturally, they became big box office hits and turned Damon into a full fledged action star. The ironic thing is that the three movies bore scant resemblance to the novels they were based upon. 

Fourteen years before Damon’s first movie was released in the theaters, ABC Television aired a two-part miniseries based upon the first novel – “THE BOURNE IDENTITY”. This miniseries starred Richard Chamberlain as David Webb aka Jason Bourne, the amnesiac CIA agent. And Jacyln Smith portrayed Marie St. Jacques, a Canadian economist who becomes his ally and lover.

As you can see, the first difference between the miniseries and the 2002 movie has been spotted. In the miniseries, Marie was an economist from Canada. In the movie, Franka Potente portrayed Marie as an unemployed German traveler trying to get into the U.S. Another major difference between the miniseries and the movie is that in the former, Chamberlain is a CIA operative who works for a black-ops organization called Treadstone 71. Treadstone’s job is to flush out the notorious assassin named Carlos. They recruit another assassin named Jason Bourne. But the real Bourne proves to be an uncontrollable asset and they kill him. Treadstone replaces the real Bourne with David Webb – Chamberlain’s character – who impersonates the dead assassin. In the movies, Bourne is nothing more than an alias for CIA/Treadstone assassin David Webb (Damon). As anyone can see, the miniseries’s plot – which adhered a lot closer to Ludlum’s novel – is a lot more complicated. Both versions begin with the shooting of one David Webb aka Jason Bourne aboard some boat in the Mediterranean. In this version, Webb/Bourne floats toward a fishing village off the coast of Southern France, where he is turned over to an alcoholic former doctor played by Denholm Elliot. The doctor discovers a chip embedded in his hip that contains a Swiss bank account number. Once Webb/Bourne recovers, he heads for Zurich to access the bank account. And there, his troubles begin. By the second half of the story Bourne/Webb finds himself not only hunted by Carlos and his minions, but by the police and the CIA.

From the first time I saw this miniseries in February 1988, I fell in love with it. It was an exciting and well written thriller about a man trying to come to terms with his past, while struggling to find his identity. Many critics tend to point the length of this version of ”THE BOURNE IDENTITY”. Considering that this version was created as a two-part miniseries and the complexities of the plot, I fail to understand why they have made such a fuss. Yes, ”THE BOURNE IDENTITY” is long in compare to the 2002 movie. It has a running time of three hours and five minutes. But this version’s length gave the producers the chance to air a rather close version of the novel without cutting out too much. And if I must be honest, I was never aware of the miniseries’ length, considering how well paced it was, thanks to director Roger Young and screenwriter Carol Sobieski.

Another criticism directed at the miniseries by certain fans was that the miniseries seemed outdated in compare to the 2002 version. Chamberlain’s version had been filmed fourteen years before Damon’s version. What did they expect? The only aspect of the miniseries’ plot that seemed outdated was the main villain, Carlos. Although the real Carlos was at large when the miniseries aired in February 1988, he was eventually caught six years later. The Alfred Hitchcock thriller, ”NOTORIOUS” was filmed and released in 1946. In fact, there is a moment in which the film reveals the time period in which the film began – April 1946. Yet, hardly anyone complains about this.

As I had stated before, the miniseries is a tight and exciting thriller boasting fine performances from Chamberlain and Smith. The pair – who has been featured in a score of television miniseries and two successful TV series in the past – created a sizzling chemistry on the screen. I am amazed that they had never worked together before . . . or since. Chamberlain’s Bourne is a more openly emotional character than the one portrayed by Matt Damon.

One could say that Chamberlain has a more theatrical style of acting. Although there were moments I found it a bit hard to take, I really enjoyed his theatricality in a scene that featured him and Anthony Quayle, who plays a high-ranking French general married to Carlos’ mistress. Another thing I noticed about Chamberlain’s version of the character is that he seemed more inclined to use aliases and disguises to reach those he need information on – whether he is an employee of a New York furniture moving company, a Texas millionaire or a harried American businessman. Although I have never been that impressed by Jacyln Smith as an actress, I believe that she did some of her best work in this miniseries. As Marie St. Jacques, Smith was able to overcome her usual monotone style to infuse a great deal of passion and emotion into the role of a woman who desperately wants to help her lover, yet is constantly repelled by his profession. The supporting cast seemed to be top-notch. I especially enjoyed Anthony Quayle as the passionate French patriot who discovers the truth about his wife’s connections to Carlos; Denholm Elliot as the drunken ex-doctor who befriends Webb/Bourne at the beginning of the story; Peter Vaughn as Carlos’ Swiss-born right-hand man, and Donald Moffat as Webb/Bourne’s compassionate yet very harried boss/mentor, David Abbott.

Most fans of the Bourne saga seem to be divided on their preference between the two versions. There are some who prefer Damon’s take on Bourne as a super spy/assassin who tries to distance himself from the villainous Treadstone/Blackbriar black-ops operations. And there are those who prefer Chamberlain’s take on the character, which adheres a lot closer to Ludlum’s original novel. Frankly, I am a fan of both the miniseries and the movie. And I hope that one day, I might encounter Jason Bourne fans who harbor the same views as me.