’m a little late with this one. I never meant to let you down like this. Things just got a little out of hand today, baby. What I got to do to make it up to you?

The Crop: State of Play

The Studio: Universal

The Director: Kevin Macdonald

The Producers: Andrew Hauptman, Tim Bevan & Eric Fellner (for Working Title) and Paul Abbot

The Writer: Matthew Michael Carnahan, based on a previously produced screenplay by Abbott.

The Actors: As of now, just Brad Pitt (though it’s my understanding he’s useful as a talent magnet).

The Premise: The meteoric rise of a principled Republican congressman is threatened when his mistress turns up dead after an apparent suicide. But a crusading reporter (Pitt) – and former best friend to said congressman – at a fledgling beltway daily discovers otherwise, thus prompting a wide-ranging investigation implicating high ranking government officials and captains of industry – which, in the best paranoid thriller tradition, touches off a deadly cover-up.

The Script: Matthew Michael Carnahan is workin’. A year ago, the younger brother of director Joe Carnahan didn’t have a single produced screenplay to his name. Now, he has one film completed (The Kingdom), one shooting (Lions for Lambs), and another two (White Jazz and State of Play) simmering in pre-production. With the possible exception of Allan Loeb (Mr. Things We Lost in the Fire), Carnahan is the most sought after writer in town; George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, Robert Redford, Alfonso Ribeiro… they’re all desperate to work with him. At this point, Carnahan could stroll into Alan Horn’s office nude, brandishing a screenplay about hyper-intelligent tsetse flies trained by the CIA to travel back into time to assassinate the Zulu warlord Shaka (who himself has gone back in time to assassinate George Washington), and walk out with a seven figure deal. Matthew Michael Carnahan is living the screenwriting dream.

But is he any good? Judging from State of Play (tentatively scheduled to begin principal photography in November)… yeah, he’s real good. Charged with whittling down a six-hour BBC miniseries into what will likely be a two-and-a-half-hour feature film, Carnahan deftly guides the reader through a dense thicket of intrigues centered largely on the journalistic investigation into a series of seemingly unrelated murders. Right now, his obvious strength is pacing; at a bulky 146-pages, State of Play is a brisk read. Where Carnahan gets into trouble, however, is in his deployment of coincidence to keep the plot moving. This may be a function of streamlining the original work, which had the luxury of unfolding leisurely over several nights on television. Even so, Carnahan and director Macdonald would be well served by cleaning up a few cheats so as not to overly tax the viewer’s suspension of belief. Or they should embrace these elements and blow the film out into opera. A little more on that later.

The script first introduces us to Stephen Collins, an up-and-coming Republican congressman from Virginia currently chairing a committee tasked with examining the secretive practices of private military contractors. Collins, who enjoys tremendous popular support from white and black voters, is being positioned by right-wing kingmaker Senator Fergus as the future of the GOP, but that future turns cloudy the minute a young staffer with whom the married congressman was involved gets run down by a subway train. Whether suicide or accident, the tragedy pulverizes Collins; when he falls apart at an ensuing press conference, reporters seize on his emotional vulnerability as evidence of an affair, forcing Collins’s handlers into damage control.

Suddenly, it’s a feeding frenzy, one that the editor of the fictional Washington Globe (if there’s something beneath The Washington Times in terms of circulation, this would be it) is eager to swim into. This disgusts the Globe‘s world-weary, occasionally conscience-stricken star reporter, Cal McCaffrey, who, in the first of many coincidences, was not only the congressman’s best friend in college, but also managed his first campaign (the only one he ever lost, natch). Though the two are estranged, McCaffrey sticks up for his ex-chum and begs off the story to cover what appears to be a boring old drug deal gone bad that left one African-American shot to shit and a bicycle messenger critically wounded.

"Appears to be" is the operative phrase in State of Play, because nothing, not even a crude briefcase snatching scheme, is without sinister implications. As McCaffrey and cub reporter Della Smith investigate the slayings, they unearth some inconsistencies: one, the deceased had no narcotics in his system; two, he’d never been collared on any kind of drug charge. After an exchange of information with the authorities, McCaffrey comes into contact with the thief’s accomplice, who turns over the stolen briefcase that was apparently worth killing over. After a brief deliberation, McCaffrey’s editor gives the okay to check out the contents of the briefcase without going to authorities; inside, they find a glock 9mm and a veritable dossier on Collins’s dead staffer.

Though the police, once they get a hold of the evidence, believe this makes Collins the prime suspect in the girl’s murder, McCaffrey still has his boy’s back. Despite his shift to "the dark side", McCaffrey knows Collins has a fierce sense of right and wrong, which manifests itself when the congressman comes out swinging against an arrogant military contractor (much to the chagrin of his mentor, Fergus). Collins also turns to McCaffrey for support and, most importantly, a place to crash when his wife boots him out of the house for his backslidin’ ways. Over a bottle of green label Jack Daniels, Collins confides in his old friend that this young girl would never have killed herself.

Complicating matters extensively is McCaffrey’s warm relationship with Collins’s wife, Anne, who also confides in the reporter (that’s a whole lot of confidences for one journalist). This is the least believable portion of Carnahan’s script – not because it’s extraneous, but because it’s shoehorned. Whenever Anne shows up, you can hear the gears of the narrative grinding; though she’s a crucial element of the plot, a little rewriting might be necessary to finesse her into the otherwise graceful flow of the script.

I’m also not crazy about the way Carnahan introduces Danny, the ne’er-do-well reporter son of the Globe‘s editor, into the story, but, once he’s in the mix, he becomes an intensely likable character (I read him as James McAvoy, and was not surprised at all to learn that that’s who played him in the BBC miniseries). There’s also a vile creature named Dominic Foy, whose sexual orientation is turned into an uncomfortably nasty bit of comedic business. I mean, I laughed at it, but this could very well get Carnahan and Macdonald into a lot of trouble.

Why It Should Be Good: Whatever deficiencies Carnahan’s script has in the internal logic department, there’s no doubting his gift for writing action. Few scripts ever inspire me to lean in as if I’m watching a great movie, but Carnahan accomplishes this with a bravura set piece envisioned from the POV of the hit man who’s been brazenly killing off policemen and damn near anyone else who gets in his way for the entire first act. Up until this sequence, I was just reclining on the couch idly enjoying the script; next thing I know, Carnahan goes all Pakula/De Palma and writes a protracted, brutally violent set-piece worthy of both masters’ best work (unsurprisingly, this passage also made me wish De Palma would’ve been hired to direct, especially since he’d embrace the logic lapses and turn this fucker into the opera it so badly wants to be). If Macdonald doesn’t shoot this in one take, he’s a fucking fool.

Why It Might Suck: Even though I had little use for Last King of Scotland, it’s pretty apparent Macdonald is a supremely gifted filmmaker. That said, does he strike you as an heir to Pakula or De Palma? Macdonald hails from the gritty British docudrama tradition, and his tendency is to go handheld as a means of inducing a sense of immediacy. Maybe he’s got the stuff to sit back and let the action play out more fluidly, but I certainly haven’t seen it yet. Still, he’s been good enough thus far that I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.

There’s also the possibility that Pitt’s been cast in the wrong role. I figured he was a natural for Collins, but, according to Variety, he’s set to play McCaffrey. Obviously, he’s got the skills to do both, but whomever they cast as Collins, he’s going to have to outdo Pitt for charisma. That’s a very tall order.

Finally, Carnahan’s worldview (or, perhaps, the worldview of the miniseries) is awfully outmoded. Without giving too much away, the third act hinges on the publishing of an explosive headline in the morning paper – i.e. the kind of thing that would either be leaked to Drudge or one o’ them political blogs and reported incessantly on the cable news channels before folks had paper in hand. State of Play is quaint like that, which is one of its charms. It’s very innocent and extremely idealistic. And when
unbridled idealism inspires an indictment of unfathomable corruption,
you can be pretty sure nuance is doing a Dar Robinson out the window.
That’s why I don’t get Macdonald as the director here.

What I’ll Be Rambling About Next: I’m dying to get a hold of Body of Lies aka Penetration, but I might go with that unexpected sequel I mentioned last week. (Another hint: "Here come ze bugs!") Until then, drink yourself silly.