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Don’t hold the front page

Hollywood bungles an adaptation of a thriller about crime-busting journalists

“Corporate conspiracies that threaten the highest levels?” splutters a detective in State of Play, responding to the idea that a recent murder stinks of political skulduggery. “I’ve only ever seen that on TV.” Clever chap. State of Play did indeed start life in 2003 as a six-part BBC series, though in writing it, Paul Abbott paid homage to two breeds of movie – conspiracy thrillers (The Parallax View, Three Days of the Condor) and hymns to the fourth estate (The Front Page, The Paper). The film version, adapted by other hands, is a mishmash rather than a disgrace. The celebration of street-pounding journalism in particular has translated poorly, coming across now as sanctimonious.

At one point, an entire newspaper office comes to a standstill while everyone watches a reporter type up a hard-won story. Even the telephones have the good grace not to ring.

That reporter is Cal McAffrey, a Washington Globe staffer who lives by “getting things on the record and printing the truth”. The Globe has been sold to money-minded MediaCorp, and Cal’s investigation into a triple homicide also becomes a campaign to demonstrate the strengths of old-fashioned reporting. As Cal is played by Russell Crowe, this extends beyond doorstepping witnesses and producing scintillating copy, and into threatening people with violence, if not actually hurling phones at them.

Our first glimpse of Crowe – shaggy of hair, baggy of face, bawling tunelessly along to the car stereo – introduces the possibility that we have wandered into a US version of an altogether different BBC show. Could this be Saxondale: the Movie? Crowe goes the whole slob – chomping candy, whipping up instant mash, swanning into a burger joint and requesting the usual – whilst also attempting some bits of ingratiating cheekiness more suited to a Beverly Hills Cop film. Cal larks around with a mortician, and overdoes the uncouthness when confronting an uncooperative PR in a restaurant. These moments work, more or less, but they also draw us out of the film in the way that a non-star unconcerned with being liked (John Simm, say, who played the original Cal) would not.

The picture begins with three deaths, including that of a government researcher pushed under a train. Her boss, Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), breaks down on TV, leading everyone to guess correctly that he was involved with the victim. Stephen turns to his old college room-mate, Cal, for advice. The age difference between the two men is so glaring that, had they really roomed together, it can only have been that Russell Crowe was Ben Affleck’s live-in nanny.

So who killed the researcher? Was it possibly the shifty-eyed creep staring helpfully into a CCTV camera moments after her death? No conspiracy theory worth its salt points the finger in only one direction, though, and sure enough Cal uncovers what the blurbs on paperback espionage novels like to call a web of intrigue.

It’s a different sort of web that preoccupies the film. That nasty internet is corroding journalistic ethics, and Cal’s goal, even more than exposing the inevitable conspiracy, is to educate the Globe’s blogger, Della (Rachel McAdams), in the ways of hands-on reporting. By the end of the film, Della has decided not to break an important story online. “A piece this big, people should probably have newsprint on their hands when they read it,” she declares. With this vision of a world in which cub reporters choose where and when to run an exclusive, the film reveals itself to be not a thriller at all, but a sugary romantic fantasy.

The “ink good, digital bad” message of State of Play would be ill-judged even if the film didn’t come with the obligatory slick website (www.stateofplaymovie.net), and if the screenwriting team did not include Billy Ray – whose own movie, Shattered Glass, concerned a real-life Washington journalist who made up stories, proving that integrity is not synonymous with the printed word.

And while the editor, Cam (Helen Mirren), claims that “the real story is the sinking of this bloody newspaper”, the Globe doesn’t look much like an organ in peril, at least as journalists have recently come to understand that beast. Seasoned newshounds haven’t been replaced by cheap interns, and wacky old-timers are indulged rather than given their marching orders. I’ll bet Cal could even put that instant mash on expenses if he wanted to.

By Ryan Gilbey

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in Rise of the Geek

2009-04-27