Pondering the State of ‘State of Play’

I finally finished watching the taut, thrilling BBC mini-series State of Play and can’t recommend it enough. One reviewer said it’s “an excellent, intelligent, grown-up drama about a murky, and very real, world.” Political scandal with requisite mistress! Boozy journalists! Government corruption! Corporate shenanigans! What’s not to love? Well, with the series, nothing. But the upcoming American big-screen adaptation gives me all sorts of reasons to worry that what was a gripping television drama in the hands of the Brits will be turned into a preposterous political thriller with all the excitement of the National Treasure franchise. Following are some reasons why. (And yes! These are snap judgments based on shaky evidence and wild speculation, exactly what the internet was built for!)

  • Condensing a six-hour dramatic series into the confines of a two-hour film means that the complexities of the characters will be lost. While the original was a twisty, turny, plot-driven show, it allowed enough moments for the characters to breathe, something that’s unlikely to happen in a fast-paced Hollywood thriller.
  • In the original, an employee who’s also the mistress of a prominent MP and head of the Energy Committee is killed, by accident it is thought. When news of the affair hits the press it is an outrage! By transposing the action to our nation’s capital, the idea of a pol having a simple extramarital affair is rather tame. It’s so 2001! Paging Gary Condit! Yes when the President diddles someone, the coverage is ceaseless. But some Congressman? Um, given the kinky, pedophilic, closeted homosexual cretins that have roamed the halls of Congress of late, simple man-on-woman after-hours nookie is hardly worth batting an eye. Tie an underage male intern in the basement of your Georgetown home and inject him with female hormones while expensing trips to Thai whorehouses and maybe you’ve got a scandal.
  • Checkbook journalism! The Brit reporters chasing the story pay sources cash hand over fist. That sort of transaction in pursuit of a good story is frowned upon by our Fourth Estate. So I guess it’s down to good ol’ American intimidation to shake the truth out, maybe?
  • Smoking and booze! Lord, did the journo characters in the Brit series like their vices. And not to say our own reporters don’t, but Hollywood films usually don’t like to depict these vices in any substantial or credible way.
  • Casting. Russell Crowe plays the lead role of Cal McCaffrey, reporter and former campaign manager for the disgraced pol. Ugh! Bad! Yes Crowe is talented, but he also brings with him his outsize, A-list baggage. Attention will be paid to his Performance. He may be fine, but he’s such an imposing presence onscreen, even when he plays men who are small or weak, that he’s going to dominate far too much, in contrast to the British actor John Simm, who was charming, conflicted, and a little squirrely — In other words, believable. The fact that Brad Pitt was reportedly attached to the role for ages is of no consolation. He too is wrong. This isn’t a remake of All the President’s Men. Jason Bateman as a bi-sexual, foppish key witness. I love Bateman, but he’s a bit dry for the outlandish role. Rachel McAdams plays the role of Della Frye, originally just another reporter, in this iteration she’s a “star blogger” who is “constantly at odds” with Crowe’s old-school reporter character. Gawd, what does that mean? That she wants to blog about her feeeeelings about the murder while everyone else is out trying to break the story? Will she overshare? Oh, and! The original had James McAvoy. ‘Nuff said.
  • Now for things that might work: casting Helen Mirren as the editor of the fictional Washington Globe newspaper. Yet! The role in the Brit series was played by Bill Nighy. So except for a gender switch, trading one heavyweight British actor for another is a bit of a draw.

Since State of Play: the Movie won’t be released until sometime in 2009, this nit-picking and taking of pot-shots is very premature. But somehow I have a feeling that my worst fears will be justified. Prove me wrong!

After the jump, a clip from the original series.

[most research via the venerable Wikipedia]

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10 Responses to Pondering the State of ‘State of Play’

  1. Zhora says:

    You have no idea how much I agree with everything you said!

    I am a big big big big big big fan of Russell Crowe. I think he’s the best. I’m excited about any project he choses, because I know that it will be of the highest quality. So normally I would, I SHOULD be excited about State Of Play as well.

    BUT – I’m also a big big big big big big fan of the original British TV series and John Simm. I love every minute of it with a passion. It’s perfect and should not, MUST NOT be tampered with.

    EVERYTHING about this remake feels wrong. The mere thought of it gives me the creeps. Before Russell was cast, I could just ignore it…..but now I’ll have to watch it, and that thought makes the hair on my neck stand up.

    All of the reasons you listed above – they are the exact same reasons why I dread the American remake as well. It will not, it CANNOT even come close to the original. They will ruin it. It’s so heartbreaking. Why? Just why??

    Thank you so much for putting all my greatest fears into words. I will direct others to your blog so that maybe they will finally see what I dread so much.


  2. ephemerist says:

    Thanks Zhora!

    I’m glad I’m not alone thinking this will probably be BAD! But not even explosively, thrillingly bad, just kind of meh, well that was a waste. And I probably would be fine with Russell Crowe, if I hadn’t seen John Simm. He’s so fantastic in that role…and doesn’t pull focus even though he’s at the heart of the piece. I thought the pacing and the style of the BBC series was spot on, and they didn’t force the tension or the elements of danger, which I fear will happen when it gets jazzed up for Hollywood. Expect a car chase and an explosion or twelve!

  3. Zhora says:

    Oh absolutely!

    What you said about Russell imposing presence onscreen – that’s exactly how I feel about it, too. It’s not even something that he can help. He just is that imposing and dominant. He can tone it down, but only so much. An investigative journalist, who is supposed to be unobtrusive and blend into the background? No way! And John, bless his heart, did exactly that: he was hardly there, in a way. But when Russell enters a room, there’s no way that not everybody will take notice.
    You are once again spot-on with your assessment of what made John’s performance so perfect!

    Ben Affleck, by the way, is all wrong for Stephen Collins as well. I really like Affleck, but Russell will eat him alive and thus the dynamics between Cal and Stephen will be all wrong! Stephen, under all the refined and polished veneer, is a brute and a pitbull, and Ben Affleck is neither.
    It would make much more sense for Russell and Ben to swap parts! Even when Edward Norton (whom I adore) was still set to play Stephen to Russell’s Cal, I felt that the dynamics between those two would be all wrong and that it would have been better for them to swap parts. Now with Affleck it will be even worse.

    Another thing you should add to your list of reasons is the love story between Cal and Anne. I really like Robin Wright, and seeing her with Russell is something I’ve wished for for a while now and is one of the rare things I’m actually looking forward to about this movie. However, I have the feeling that the affair between Cal and Anne will not take up as much space as it did in the original. I guess it will only be hinted at. And there’s absolutely no way that they’ll get caught in the act twice, as happens to Cal and Anne in the original! LOL But this affair is so integral to the story and to the relationship between Cal and Stephen – excluding it or reducing it to a minimum will be really bad!

  4. ephemerist says:

    Oh yes, Affleck! And Robin Wright (Penn? Is she still a Penn?)! Neither good choices. Affleck is actually too (and I can’t believe I’m typing this) roguish and charming? Maybe? And who knows what character Wright will pull out of her actory bag of tricks. And I’m certain the sex scene btwn. Crowe and Wright will be so typically choreographed and unsexy.

  5. Zhora says:

    I don’t think there will be any sex scenes to begin with! LOL We will probably get to see some mild kissing and even milder pashing, and then the camera will pan to the curtains blowing in the wind…..

    You know, as I said I really like Robin Wright (not a Penn anymore ;-)). She’s been on my wish-list of female co-stars for Russell for a long time. But she has such a warm and fragile personality…..whereas Anne is manipulative, a user and ultimately cold. I’m not sure Wright can pull that off. Hell, I’m not sure I even want to see her do something like this! LOL
    Any other project with those two would have been fine with me. But not this one.

    Affleck too roguish and charming – yeah, that about hits the nail on the head. When Steven finally gets what’s been done to him, he reacts like a wounded bear, he comes out swinging and rages through the ruins of his life. He is, as I said, a brute and pitbull underneath. Can you see Affleck doing any of that? I for damn sure can’t.

  6. ephemerist says:

    Yes, the “sex scene” will be all O-shaped mouths and glistening backs, then pan to the window and fade out!

    Affleck could, I suppose, lash out. But that character, while he does go through a journey, is ultimately (arguably) more in service of the plot than the sum of any great, well-crafted actory role. It’s a bit of a wash all around, I’m afraid. Yet, like I said, surprise me! Also: McAvoy! Phew. C’mon. Is there even the equivalent in the film? I feel like that bit got excised in the interest of time and story.

  7. Zhora says:

    As a matter of fact, there isn’t. No editor’s son in this version.
    In one of the first drafts, he was still there, and actually Kevin MacDonald, who of course worked with James on Last King Of Scotland, asked him if he would reprise his role. So James read the script and thought that it was nowhere near as good as the original, because they were squishing a six-hour-story into two hours. And from the beginning he had the gut feeling that Dan Foster would be one of the first things to be scrapped. So he said to Kevin “be honest, I wouldn’t be in the finished version, would I?” and Kevin had to concede to that.

    Another bad decision for the film version, and another reason why I love the original so much: I’m a fan of James McAvoy too. :-)

    As for the “sex scene” – I’m not even daring to hope for glistening backs! LOL

  8. ephemerist says:

    I figured they’d excise the editor’s son from the script. It is the easiest to do away with. Yet what a fun role. McAvoy apparently made the right choice!

  9. LimeyG says:

    Oh, good–I’m not the only one quietly worrying about this :-)

    Another issue not often covered in US narratives: cops and journos working together! Sharing information! Doing favors for each other!

    And one thing that comes across probably less overtly to US audiences than in the UK is the threat of American Big Business; there’s an undercurrent of foreign (especially American) control that tends to rile Brits up. That whole subtle theme will doubtless disappear. Though I imagine that all subtle everything will vanish with it …

    On a related note, have you seen Life on Mars? The original UK version had lovely John Simm in the lead role; the remake is being produced by David E. Kelley (aagh!).

  10. ephemerist says:

    @LimeyG: good point re: cops and journos trading info. As for subtlety, ha! Not having it in this flick. Though we have our own fears about Big Business and lobbyists and the like. So, it’ll read.

    The original Life on Mars is on my netflix list. I haven’t seen it yet but do adore John Simm. David E. Kelley remake? Blargh! Sounds terrible.

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