“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.

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“STATE OF PLAY” (2009) Review

Below is my review of the 2009 political thriller, “STATE OF PLAY”, starring Russell Crowe and Ben Affleck:

“STATE OF PLAY” (2009) Review

Aside from the Liam Neeson thriller, ”TAKEN”, I must admit that I never found the movies released during the first three months of 2009 that impressive. They were not been terrible. But I did harbor this feeling that I had been wallowing in a sea of mediocrity during those months. Thankfully, this feeling ended when I saw the political thriller directed by Kevin Macdonald called, ”STATE OF PLAY”.

Based upon the critically acclaimed 2003 British miniseries of the same name,”STATE OF PLAY” was about a Washington D.C. newspaper’s investigation into the death of a young congressional aide named Sonia Baker (Maria Thayer) and centers around the relationship between leading journalist Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) and his old friend Robert Collins (Ben Affleck), a U.S. congressman on the fast track and Baker’s employer. When Congressman Collins learns of his aide’s death, he asks his old friend, McAffrey to investigate her death when it is labeled as a suicide. McAffrey and a blogger with his newspaper named Della Frye (Rachel McAdams) not only learn that Baker was Congressman Collins’ mistress, but there might be a connection between her death and the private military company that the congressman was investigating.

I have heard a few proclaim that the original British miniseries is superior to this version.  I have seen the miniseries and it is pretty damn good, but I must admit that I found this version of ”STATE OF PLAY” to be just as impressive.  Kevin Macdonald’s solid direction screenwriters Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gilroy, Peter Morgan, and Billy Ray created a tight thriller filled with interesting glimpses into the press and Washington politics.  This film never became critically acclaimed as the British miniseries (even if it deserved to be), but it was an excellent, well-acted movie filled with first-rate performances. And its story – unlike previous movies I have recently watched – did not end on a disappointing note. The movie ended with an unexpected twist that surprised me.

Russell Crowe led the cast, portraying Washington Globe journalist, Cal McAffrey. I would not consider his role as interesting as the Ed Hoffman character from ”BODY OF LIES”, Bud White in ”L.A. CONFIDENTIAL”, Jeffrey Wigand in ”THE INSIDER”or his Oscar winning role in ”GLADIATOR” – Maximus Decimus Meridius. His Cal McAffrey is on the surface, an affable, yet slightly jaded reporter who becomes a relentless truth-seeker when pursuing a special story. In the case of Sonia Baker, McAffrey’s relentless investigation seemed rooted in his desire to extract his friend Collins from the gossip slingers over the latter’s affair with the aide and focus upon bringing down the private military company being investigated by Collins. Crowe is at turns relaxed and at the same time, intense and single-minded in his pursuit of journalistic truth.

Several years ago, I had found myself thinking that if there was ever a remake of the 1950 classic, ”SUNSET BOULEVARD”, who could portray the doomed Hollywood screenwriter, Joe Gillis. The first person that immediately came to my mind was Ben Affleck. Actress Nancy Olson once described William Holden at the time that particular movie was filmed as the typical handsome Hollywood leading actor . . . but with a touch of corruption that made his Joe Gillis so memorable. Frankly, I could say the same about Affleck. I saw him display this same trait in movies like ”BOUNCE”and ”HOLLYWOODLAND”. And I could see it in his performance as Congressman Robert Collins. Affleck managed to skillfully project Collins not only as a dedicated crusader who is determined to bring down the private military company with a congressional investigation, but also a flawed man who became sexually attracted to his beautiful aide, while struggling to control his anger at the knowledge of his wife Anne’s (Robin Wright Penn) past affair with McAffrey.

The rest of the cast included Rachel McAdams’ solid portrayal of a popular blogger turned junior political reporter named Della Frye, who finds herself in the midst of the career-making story and mentored by McAffrey. Helen Mirren’s Washington Globeeditor Cameron Lynne is wonderfully splashy and strong, without being over-the-top. I could say the same for Jason Bateman’s performance as a bisexual fetish club promoter named Dominic Foy, who has the information that McAffrey and Frye need. Michael Berresse portrayed a mysterious hitman named Robert Bingham and he does a pretty good job. However, I must admit that I found his performance as a sociopath a little over-the-top . . . especially in his last scene. Although not as memorable as some of the other supporting cast, both Harry Lennix as a Washington D.C. cop and Jeff Daniels as Affleck’s congressional mentor gave solid support to the movie. And there is Robin Wright Penn, who portrayed the congressman’s wife, Anne Collins. Penn gave a complex performance as the politician’s wife who is not only hurt and betrayed by her husband’s infidelity, but wracked with guilt over her own past indiscretion with McAffrey, along with desire for him.

If you are expecting ”STATE OF PLAY” to be the next ”ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN” or ”SEVEN DAYS IN MAY”, you are going to be slightly disappointed. I have seen a few political films of slightly better quality.  But I can honestly say that I still found ”STATE OF PLAY” to be a first-rate, entertaining movie filled with intelligence, humor and a strong and steady cast.