I’ve said this before: the British miniseries State of Play is one of the all-time great pop culture looks at journalism and a fantastic murder mystery. And I’m saying it again because BBC America is airing the original, starting tonight, and you’re nuts if you watch anything else this evening — particularly because it gives us a chance to erase the memory of the totally mediocre American remake.
State of Play is one of the only cinematic explorations of journalism that works, precisely because it gets at how drawn-out the process of nailing down a good story is. Nailing down two murders, a corruption narrative, and a story about political maneuvering takes five reporters, with five different sets of sources. The story emphasizes that it takes different skills to work with disenfranchised residents of council housing than it does to massage a prime minister or browbeat a corporate executive. And State of Play recognizes the costs of doing that kind of work, of having a fidelity to the truth that overrides relationships or practical accommodations. How far can you pursue a story when you’re an editor with a wife who needs expensive medical care? What kind of person do you become when you subordinate past and future romantic relationships to your needs as a journalist? How justified is it to worry about your personal safety when you’re in pursuit of a story of national importance? It’s a vision of crusading journalism that’s unglamorous and deeply human, that recognizes that not everyone can bear the costs. Reporters like Cal McCaffrey are the elect not because they’re capable of goodness, but because they’re capable of its inverse.
It’s also a thrilling and effective look at the power and hollowness of political theater. We all love the idea of Congressional hearings where honest lawmakers take down corrupt witnesses, or noble witnesses reveal the pretentions and vanity of preening lawmakers, but State of Play shows us the choreography that goes into the rare moments when something like that happens. If you’ve ever wanted to see a political wife do something other than stand placidly by her erring husband, State of Play will let you watch one stick a knife in and twist it. And if you want to know what it’s like to be the press flack for some truly disgusting people, Michael Feast is pure acid as a man pushed to his absolute limit by the lies he’s supposed to tell.
This is not a comforting story. It’s not an argument that the political system is purifiable, or that the truth will set you free. State of Play is an argument for doing the best we possibly can, recognizing the costs that other people will pay to keep the rest of us as honest as possible. I don’t know that a standard that depressing is ultimately the one we should really be setting. But it’s probably worth acknowledging that in our present environment, it’s often harder and less rewarding to do the right thing, and we shouldn’t make false promises to the people who want to do it.