State of Play

Starring Russell Crowe, Ben Affleck, Helen Mirren, Rachel McAdams

Directed by Kevin MacDonald

Rated PG-13

I am a profound fan of State of Play, the tele-cinematical crumpet of solemn and fervent perfection the BBC offered us in 2003.

Therefore, I am so glad to be able to say Hollywood didn’t fuck up boiling down that six-hour story into a two-hour, 2009 version.

Even though the original was more about politics and personality than about the newspaper biz, it’s enough about the newspaper biz, too, that the changes in corporate journalism almost had to be the focus of a shortened adaptation of that story made today.

Trimming a story by two-thirds is inevitably going to mean losing a lot of character stuff, but if it had to be done — and I’m not sure, in fact, that it did — this was exactly the right way to do it.

This is what it is: A research aide to a congressman heading up a committee investigating the misdeeds of a defense contractor (think: Blackwater) dies under the wheels of a D.C. subway train. Was it suicide? Was it an accident? Was it murder? Did her boss have something to do with it?

The congressman, Stephen Collins, is played by Ben Affleck (suddenly looking all grownup; when the hell did that happen?). His old college roommate is hotshot investigative reporter Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) who’s hot on the trail of an apparently unrelated murder that, it turns out, is connected to the death of the aide.

Cal is old-school. He’s Woodward and Bernstein a generation too late. He has to compete with bloggers like the awesome Della Frye (Rachel McAdams) — who, as their editor boss Helen Mirren notes, is “hungry … cheap, and she churns out copy by the hour.” Cal, on the other hand, says things like, “I’m a journalist. I’m not a publicist,” which is adorable, given the state of what we call journalism these days.

Little think-bombs like these punctuate this State of Play — the original was more about the touchy gray areas between friendship and business (the first Cal had been a campaign manager years earlier for his Stephen Collins, a member of Parliament), but this is more about whether real journalism can be done when profit is all and the internet will scoop whatever story a boots-on-the-ground grunt of a writer can scrape up on the streets when he has to deal with sources and, you know, ethics and stuff.

Yeah, this is still Hollywood. There’s a Hollywood action sequence that’s not exactly out of place, except when you compare it to the original, which was all silently exchanged glances speaking volumes and quiet moments about character that made you ache for them even when you had to acknowledge that the characters were huge assholes.

But I cannot bitch about this new State of Play, much as I was prepared to. It’s exciting and urgent. It’s a beautiful and sad fantasy about the last gasp of investigative journalism, which has already passed.