You try slicing and dicing a six-hour corker of a 2003 British miniseries into a two-hour suspense drama set in Washington, D.C. It ain't easy. Maybe that's why Brad Pitt dropped out, and his Fight Club alter ego, Edward Norton, followed. Russell Crowe stepped in for Pitt as Cal McAffrey, the reporter torn between professional ethics and his friendship with Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck, in for Norton), a married congressman involved in a sex scandal. Maybe that's why director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) assigned three screenwriters — Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gilroy and Billy Ray — to whip Paul Abbott's original story into a new shape. Maybe that's why major characters were dumped (James McAvoy's brilliant take on a son of journalistic privilege is the biggest miss) or sex-changed (Bill Nighy's acid-tongued newspaper editor is now, marvelously, Helen Mirren) or morphed from reporter (Kelly Macdonald) into trendy, tabloid-bred blogger (Rachel McAdams).
It sounds like a bloody mess, and sometimes it is. The kick here is what a gripping thriller Macdonald has carved out of unyielding stone. From the moment Stephen's mistress turns up dead, State of Play is off and running. Was it a suicide? A drug murder? A conspiracy launched by a military contractor Stephen is investigating? Can Cal protect his friend against his paper's dirt-digging? Does he even want to, considering the reporter had once been involved with the congressman's wife (the excellent Robin Wright Penn)?
Crowe and Mirren duel like dinosaurs over the future of newspapers, if there is one. "Good reporters don't have friends, just sources," she tells him, knowing that the cheating-congressman story will sell more papers than government skulduggery. The days of All the President's Men are over. Headline hunting has made casualties of truth and trust. The movie reverbs with grief over the death of what once made newspapers essential. It's juicy stuff, made juicier by the actors, Jeff Daniels as a shadowy politico and a knockout Jason Bateman as a kinky PR guy getting roughed up, but not in the ways he'd prefer. Affleck may strike you as off-putting at first, hitting wrong emotional notes, but hang on. State of Play keeps the twists coming.