Judge Erich Asperschlager's "state within" is just fine today, thanks.
I couldn't even spell "Tyrgyztan" until a couple days ago.
The State Within is a stylish political thriller, set in an America as seen through British eyes. Highly cynical about the transparency of government, it walks a fine line between exciting and maddeningly confusing.
Facts of the Case
When a suicide bomber blows up a D.C.-to-London flight just after take-off, British Ambassador Sir Mark Brydon (Jason Isaacs, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets) finds himself in the middle of a political crisis. Evidence mounts that Tyrgyztan—a former Soviet republic and a U.S./U.K. ally in the war on terror—may have been involved in the attack. As Brydon works to discover the truth about the attack and its aftermath, he uncovers a deeper conspiracy—one that threatens to undermine governmental authority on both sides of the Atlantic.
Leave it to the Brits to make a miniseries that tackles the current political climate head-on. Where shows like 24 use terrorism and political corruption as fuel for action, The State Within—which aired originally on the BBC—uses action and intrigue to raise questions about government: What aren't our politicians telling us about why we go to war? Who's really in control?
Though the story is set in the present—well after the attacks of 9/11 and 7/7, and the Iraq War—the similarities to actual events are undeniable: an airline explosion sends a nation into lockdown; there's a push for regime change in an oil-rich country under dictatorial control.
The story feels like a "do over" for Britain's support of 2003's U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. By creating an eerily similar scenario, writers Lizzie Mickery and Daniel Percival seem to be venting frustrations and suspicions about past manipulation of information, while suggesting ways things could have turned out better.
The underlying political cynicism gives the story a hyper-real quality that doesn't always ring true. (In response to the terrorist attack, for example, Virginia's governor orders the incarceration of all British Muslims.) The America of The State Within isn't quite right either, like it's been filtered through an outsider's perspective—where American politicians are brash cowboys, and the civilized British work for diplomacy. This point of view is reinforced by the two countries' primary representatives: Secretary of Defense Lynne Warner (Sharon Gless, Cagney & Lacey) and British Ambassador Mark Brydon. She responds to the airline attack by ordering a rollout of tanks; he responds by setting out a condolence book.
Whatever your opinion of the series' politics, the idea of "putting Britain in the U.S."—contrasting what goes on inside the British Embassy with the American stance—is compelling, with writing and acting strong enough to forgive the occasional preachiness. Veteran actors like Jason Isaacs, Lennie James (Jericho), and Alex Jennings (The Queen) somehow make the most implausible scenarios more believable. Even though a few of the characters—such as Sharon Gless's "kill 'em all" secretary of defense—border on caricature, the cast has real chemistry. It's just too bad they felt the need to balance Brydon's solitary nature by giving him a godson and contriving a love story subplot Â- these elements just come across as check marks against a "plot point" master list.
With its shaky camera and thumping soundtrack, The State Within feels as though it could have been made this side of the pond. What sets it apart from comparable American programming, however, is a sense of restraint: The best example happens near the end, as the conspirators are revealed not through an elaborate action sequence, but by the simple act of answering cell phones in a crowded room. The major deaths, too, are more effective because there are so few of them.
The best and worst thing I can say about this series is that it's the most complicated political thriller I've ever seen. That complexity is exciting—the central conspiracy is densely packed with characters and shadowy organizations crossing and double-crossing each other—when you know what the heck is going on. Because it unfolds so slowly, your enjoyment depends entirely on your willingness to stick with the story. Don't be surprised if, by the time you understand why a character did what they did earlier on, you can't remember what it was they did in the first place. That happens a lot, especially at the end, where a lot of loose ends get tied up too quickly.
Hearing cast members admit—in this set's lone special feature, "The Making of The State Within"—they had to reread the script to understand the plot made me feel better. The screenwriters talk about confusion as if it were an artistic choice—keeping the audience off-balance as a way to heighten suspense. Whether or not it's the best way to tell a story, I respect them for taking that risk.
Visually, the series takes cues from other political thrillers: the colors are muted and gritty; the frenetic camerawork and quick edits keep things moving. Overall, the series—with its high production values and seamless special effects—feels cinematic.
As mentioned above, the set has only one special feature, "The Making of The State Within." A collection of interviews with the writers, director, cast members, and select crew, it deals with everything from the show's political themes, to the script, locations, and cinematography. The longest sequence shows how they filmed the opening plane crash—covering a Canadian highway with wreckage, debris, and controlled pyrotechnics for a quick two-day shoot. It's an impressive reminder this series was made on a television, rather than motion picture, budget. The 30-minute length feels right for a "making of" featurette. I could complain about a lack of deleted scenes or commentary track, but after a solid six-hour story, I doubt additional features would add much.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Political thrillers are tricky: real-world politics is more about talking heads than shooting guns. Mickery and Percival have done their best to combine the best of both worlds, and—despite a confusing story that sometimes pushes believability—as a result, The State Within works. The strong acting and slick look cover a multitude of sins; once you get caught up in the story, putting the pieces together is fun.
If you're willing to take a cynical look at America and have enough patience to see the story through to the end, the "British" focus on acting and dialogue make The State Within a tonic from loud, American-style thrillers. Don't worry, though: there's enough familiarity to make your visit feel more like a day trip than a full-blown vacation.
Not guilty. Now if you'll excuse me, I have to leave this briefcase behind the dumpster out back.
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