Watching a thriller executed with skill and panache is uniquely satisfying. Thrillers, however, are notoriously difficult to pull off. In order for one to be successful, it must hold the audience in suspense for prolonged periods of time. It must keep the audience in the dark and off balance, while also making the experience of disorientation pleasurable. Plot points and new information have to be disbursed carefully—just enough that we want to keep watching, without giving us too much to handle at once. Plot twists that develop have to be simultaneously surprising and logical; as audiences, we want the delight of being outwitted while also having the comfort of knowing we could have figured it out on our own.
There was a time roughly corresponding with the 1970s heyday of American cinema when great thrillers like The Conversation and Dog Day Afternoon were regularly churned out by Hollywood. Nowadays, crackerjack entertainments such as the Bourne movies only come around once in awhile to remind us how it is done, and artistically successful thrillers that don't trade in violent spectacle are an endangered species. Thankfully, other countries have kept up the tradition, and if one is willing to look for them, good foreign-made thrillers are out there for the taking. One recent example, the BBC's 2003 miniseries, State of Play, has finally been released on DVD in the United States in anticipation of its Hollywood remake, and it is a sterling example of what a thriller can be: stylish, expertly crafted and addictively suspenseful.
The series opens with a bang and never stops running during its six hours. A black teenager named Calvin Stagg is run down in the street and shot in the head--the victim of a possible drug-related assassination. The same morning, a parliamentary researcher named Sonia Baker throws herself in front of a Tube train. Is there a connection? Who was Sonia Baker? Why did her boss, MP Stephen Collins, suffer a minor public breakdown when he was told she died? The miniseries focuses on the efforts of a team of journalists to answer these questions. As in all thrillers, nothing is simple. The main reporter on the story, a respected journo named Cal McCaffrey, is Stephen Collins's former campaign manager and good friend. The police very quickly become involved, as do Calvin Stagg's family, and pressure from the government soon starts perverting all efforts to get at the truth. The virtues of State of Play are numerous. It never drags or feels padded, and the music, cinematography, and editing all work together to keep the viewer constantly hooked.
As a procedural thriller focusing on the intertwined worlds of journalism and politics, part of the program's job is to make the process of putting a newspaper story together as enthralling as a high-speed car chase. As we follow the reporters' investigation into Sonia Baker's life and death, the series accomplishes this with aplomb. Watching the reporters persuade uncooperative witnesses, play the police for information, and use every trick of the trade to get to the bottom of what really happened is a joy unto itself. We've seen much of this before, in films like All The President's Men, but the excitement of the newsroom remains infectious. In addition, as the various pressures on Cal McCaffrey—legal, professional, ethical, personal—mount, each scene starts functioning on multiple levels, and any one event can have both positive and negative connotations simultaneously. This buildup eventually places the viewer in a constant state of anticipation for the next moment. State of Play neither reinvents nor deconstructs the conventions of a thriller. Instead, it fully embraces them and works to humanize these conventions through character and performance.
The series is suffused with what a friend of mine calls "The Giving a Shit Factor". Yes, everyone is working on a fairly by-the-book mystery, but by collectively bringing their A-Game to it, State of Play develops into a surprisingly deep and memorable experience. Much of the credit, then, must go to State of Play's cast, who approach their roles with a focus on the humanity and nuance of the people they play. It's part of the odd vagaries of fame that the lead actors in the series—Life on Mars' John Simm as McCaffrey and BBC mainstay David Morrissey as Collins—are virtual unknowns in the United States, while the supporting cast (including Kelly MacDonald, James McAvoy and Bill Nighy) are far better known. All are exceptional regardless, as are character actors like Benedict Wong, Mark Warren and Philip Glenister in smaller roles. The one place where its conventionality becomes a weakness is in the show's treatment of romance. Romance is thorny, difficult territory for thrillers. As soon as they introduce female characters, you can start to take bets on which one will be the main character's romantic conquest. Once this happens, it is only a matter of time before the acoustic guitar and soft-focus lighting starts up, and before too long we're in Sea of Love territory. State of Play is not able to escape this fate; one scene in episode four involving the reading of a letter is particularly embarrassing.
The series recovers lost ground by frankly treating the consequences of its romantic plot, but it still remains the low point of the show. For viewers looking for a captivating thriller that won't insult their intelligence, State of Play is hard to beat. It is definitely worth checking out in light of the American remake, which will probably disappoint. There is no good way to cram the show's plot into two hours, and while the film has some good actors attached, many of them (Russell Crowe in particular) are miscast. Luckily, in the age of Netflix and BBC America, we can get the original without having to resort to the bootleg market. State of Play is as compulsively viewable as television gets, and well worth seeking out.