State of Play

The “New York Times” announced on April 6, 2009, that “State of Play,” a new two-hour feature film, a re-make of the six-episode BBC serial by the same title, will soon be released. And although it will star Helen Mirren, the Queen of British Sophisticated Serials, I thought it helpful to post my entry on the original series (as it appeared in “The Cinema of Globalization”):

2003, 342 mins., UK, TV Series (6 episodes).
Director: David Yates
Screenplay: Paul Abbott

Combining investigative journalism with a political fix by an oil company makes “State of Play” exciting viewing, with an added bonus of an attractive newsroom team and a crusty chief editor. The mysterious deaths with which the series begins–a young woman working for a British MP goes under a Tube train and a young black man is gunned down on the street in broad daylight–establish an anxious rhythm that each episode sustains.
It also provides a counterpoint between very emotional and scary sequences with sardonic and occasionally sick humor. It turns out that the MP was on the very Tube train that killed the young woman (did she fall? was she pushed?) and that he was having an affair with her. Anyone who has ever been in a crowded subway car stopped for “unforeseen circumstances,” according to the conductor over the p.a. system, will get guilty pleasure from this sequence because the conductor cannot resist gossiping: “Well, there’s a body on the line at Green Park.” And the passengers (including the MP) groan.
The MP in question, Stephen Collins (played by David Morrissey) is heading up a parliamentary Energy Select Committee in the midst of an inquiry into the oil industry; when he hears of his assistant’s death, he breaks down in public and begins a roller-coaster ride that ends his marriage and puts his old campaign manager, Cal McCaffrey (played by John Simm), now an investigative reporter for the independently minded major newspaper, on the case. It will come as no surprise to viewers of political thrillers not to mention readers of the news that a fix must be in.
This political thriller is not only a mystery–the two deaths in the first few minutes of the first episode are obviously related–but a condemnation of the ways of secret government business-as-usual and like “A Very British Coup” (q.v.), which it resembles in many ways, the primary enemy is the upper-crust establishment types that dominate the government regardless of the political stripe of the party in power. In this film it is New Labour, mocked by Cal at one point for its Millennium Dome fiasco (see “MM”), while in “A Very British Coup,” the Tories don’t like being upstaged by the old Labour Party especially with a union leader as prime minister.
The politics of oil and brilliant newsroom performances by a cast, especially Cal’s workmate Della Smith (played by Kelly Macdonald) and boss Cameron Foster (Bill Nighy), make this a must-see; globalization may have found its genre after all–the petro-thriller (see “Syriana”).

Goodman, Tim. “Two Reasons You Shouldn’t Watch Sopranos on Sunday Nights.” “San Francisco Chronicle,” 16 April 2004. Says that the film “gives credence to the idea that there may not be any better format for telling an impact story than over the course of four to six hours.”


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