State of Play
If you’re going to remake something, remake something that didn’t work, and fix it. I’m paraphrasing, but that’s the gist of what the French critic and filmmaker Francois Truffaut observed. (And no, he didn’t remake any movies in his career, although he adapted numerous novels.)
The filmmakers had a job on their hands when they took on this big screen treatment of Paul Abbott’s universally-praised 2003 BBC serial. For many people (at least in Britain) the TV original will be unimprovable, and a two-hour American condensation with Ben Affleck has all the appeal of alcohol-free beer.
But don’t be too quick to judge. Kevin Macdonald – the documentarist who turned feature filmmaker with The Last King of Scotland – is an intriguing choice for director. The three credited screenwriters all have serious work to their names: Matthew Michael Carnahan wrote Lions for Lambs and The Kingdom; Tony Gilroy did the first two Bourne movies, Michael Clayton and Duplicity; Billy Ray made Shattered and Breach. These are not Muppets.
And then there’s the substantial, heavyweight cast list, headed by Mr Russell Crowe as investigative reporter Cal McAffrey.
Crowe is not my idea of a John Simm stand-in, and that’s to the good. This is a proper “re-imagining”, if you will forgive that horrible Hollywood-ese, and Crowe seems to me anyway a powerfully authentic presence. Looking like he’s never seen the inside of a gym, with hair down to his shoulders and an anti-establishment beard, he might have stepped out of any newsroom in the country. (In one scene he wears an ugly plaid shirt that I blush to say he might have found in the back of my closet.)
In this re-telling, Cal went to college with up and coming congressman Stephen Collins (Affleck). That’s a sensible change, except that Affleck is obviously significantly (eight years) younger than Crowe. Robin Wright Penn – as Stephen’s wife Anne (the Polly Walker role) was also at college with them, and at an unspecified time in the past she has had a fling with Cal, though he insists it was nothing.
Despite these adjustments, if you’ve seen the Beeb’s version you will have a very good idea of where the movie is heading (even if it gets there four hours sooner). Collins’ researcher and lover is found dead under a subway train the very day the congressman is due to head up hearings into a dodgy corporation (here a private security firm, the recipient of government largesse in Iraq). He cries on camera announcing the death, which rather blows his credibility in the press – except with his pal Cal, who gets the scoop when Stephen explains his lover wasn’t suicidal, and may have been knocked off on purpose.
I don’t think you get swept up in the twists and turns in the same way here – in fact it seems glaringly obvious who the bad guys are from very early on. Affleck is believable as a slick, idealistic up and and coming congressman, and we’re familiar enough with the scandals that type fall into, but his youthfulness – in comparison with Russell Crowe and with David Morrissey, who played the part in the UK – does upset the balance a bit.
For my money Macdonald also blows the ending, which is needlessly confusing and only dilutes the impact of what we’ve seen before.
On the other hand the film has plenty of atmosphere – DP Roberto Priego shoots Washington DC in a manner that is tense and edgy without overdoing it – and the characters are strong enough to keep you watching.
Truffaut didn’t see the point of remaking something that worked, but it does have its benefits: simply put, Abbott’s version of the classic Hollywood conspiracy thriller has a strong enough backbone to support this intelligent re-appropriation. This is an absorbing, well-acted movie – not another Traffic, but worth seeing on its own merits.
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