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‘Scoop’ Review: Prince Andrew’s Catastrophic Jeremy Epstein Interview Gets ‘The Crown’ Treatment in Unfocused Netflix Thriller

It makes sense that Netflix leapt at the chance to adapt Sam McAllister’s “Scoops: Behind the Scenes of the BBC’s Most Shocking Interviews,” as the story that screenwriter Peter Moffat has pulled from it feels like nothing so much as an episode from season eight or nine of “The Crown” — the most compelling thing about this film might be the case it makes in support of the streamer’s decision to end that series after season six.

A thin but propulsive journalistic thriller about the making of the November 2019 “Newsnight” segment in which Prince Andrew self-immolated on national television while being grilled about his friendship with Jeffrey Epstein, “Scoop” fleetly dramatizes how a small team at the BBC’s most prestigious current affairs program convinced the Duke of York to hoist himself on the petard of his own alleged sex crimes. It’s a juicy, well-acted slice of recent history that straddles the border between hard journalism and tabloid filth, while nominally examining how irrelevant such categorization has become in an age when all news is filtered through the gutters of social media. But the film is too close to — and too impressed by — the simple fact of what just happened to see under the surface, or even bother to look that hard.

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Is this, like so much of “The Crown,” a story about the monarchy’s failure to mature with the times? Is this a “Spotlight”-flavored story about a brilliant TV producer — Sam McAllister herself, played here by the great Billie Piper — who recognizes the gravity of Prince Andrew’s (alleged) misconduct, and wills the other women at “Newsnight” to make him pay for his (alleged) involvement in the assault and sex trafficking of underage girls? Is this a story about how charm, title, and power can blind people to the most obvious forms of moral rot, even when it manifests within themselves?

Yes. “Scoop” is all of those things and more, but it glances at such ideas with all the insight and curiosity of a queen waving to her subjects from a distance, or of a paparazzo snapping a photograph of a foreign royal walking through Central Park with a convicted pedophile. A paparazzo like Jae Donnelly (“Sex Education” breakout Connor Swindells, overqualified for this nothing of a role), who spends nine long years waiting for someone to seize on the many snaps he’s taken of Prince Andrew waltzing around Manhattan with Jeffrey Epstein (shout out to the poor guy who plays this movie’s Jeffrey Epstein’s lookalike, which is surely not what he had in mind when he imagined his career as a working actor).

The call doesn’t come until a few months before Epstein’s death, as Sam — a blustery single mom whose job is to book the kind of guests that other shows can’t — identifies Prince Andrew’s connection with Epstein as a potential “Newsnight” story. Her peers might scoff that it’s too scandalous and trashy for their hard news show, but the program is struggling to balance journalistic integrity with its desperate need for ratings, and Sam is convinced she’s found the perfect thing to split the difference.

So, to the mild chagrin of her editor Esme Wren (Romola Garai) and “Newsnight” anchor Emily Maitlis (Gillian Anderson), Sam begins trying to make inroads with Prince Andrew’s loyal private secretary. Her name is Amanda Thirsk (Keeley Hawes), and she’s a decent and capable woman who refuses to believe the worst rumors about her royal boss, even if she recognizes that his public image is in dire need of rehabilitation — and even if Rufus Sewell, amusingly puffed up inside a simpering layer of entitlement and a pair of thick prosthetic jowls, plays the Queen’s buffoonish charmer of a son as an inbred momma’s boy who loves arranging the stuffed animals in his office almost as much as he loves paying underage girls for sex.

When Epstein is arrested for the ickiest crimes imaginable — again — and then found hanging in his prison cell, the Prince Andrew of it all immediately goes from tabloid fodder to front page news in a way that changes the stakes of a potential interview. Amanda had been wary of allowing the Prince to appear on a hard journalism show without any red lines or pre-approved questions, but as the scandal goes nuclear in a way that threatens the reputation of the entire royal family, she recognizes the potential upside of allowing her boss to speak his peace on the only credible program that will give Prince Andrew proper time to clear his name. “An hour of television can change everything,” someone says. “It’s like magic.” And so both sides begin feverishly practicing to cast their respective spells over an audience of millions.

Where McAllister and her colleagues at the BBC were afraid they might become the story if they didn’t finesse it right, this film — naturally directed by “The Crown” alum Philip Martin — is tasked with reminding us that the story couldn’t have been told without them. “Scoop” does what it can to tease some excitement out of the sleepless, 70-hour cram session when Prince Andrew and the “Newsnight” team retreat to their separate corners in order to prepare for the interview, but the most interesting thing about the process is how unseriously the Prince takes it. As Sam tells her tween son, a character who’s shoehorned into this script for the sole purpose of hearing this one line of dialogue: “Most people want to talk and are terrible at listening.” Some of them can’t even hear themselves clearly.

After spending 60 years ensconced in the empire’s tightest echo chamber, Prince Andrew has lost all perspective as to the seriousness of this or any situation, and to how ridiculous some of his answers might seem in light of what Emily Maitlis’ questions will imply. “Scoop” is happy to see Prince Andrew as an easy punchline (his last appearance in the movie finds him standing butt-naked in his bathroom as tweets of doom begin to ding across his phone), but the film is never more textured or humane than when it focuses on Amanda’s dawning awareness of the pathetic man she’s enabled like a duty. This movie needed to have a character who’s effectively hearing Prince Andrew for the first time, because most of the people watching it on Netflix won’t have the same luxury.

Amanda becomes even more important because of how little there is for Sam to do once the interview is confirmed. She’s relegated to the background as the brunt of the responsibility is shifted onto Emily’s shoulders, and whatever momentum the movie has cultivated around her character arc is relegated to the background along with it.

Mordantly amusing as it is to watch Anderson and Sewell recreate the key moments of the “Newsnight” segment heard around the world (she’s got the poise of a Greek phalanx, while he’s delightfully sinking into the quicksand of his own bullshit), the set-up for that climactic encounter is too flimsy to transcend the stuff of simple mimicry. The only things we learn about Emily is that she’s a no-nonsense pro who doesn’t even stop working when she goes for a run, and that she feels a latent guilt over the media’s treatment of Monica Lewinsky. The only thing we learn about Esme Wren is that her name is Esme Wren. And that she really, really believes in the enduring power of basic television. Maybe Netflix wasn’t the most natural fit for this movie after all.

It’s true enough that good broadcast journalism is still an effective bulwark against the vicissitudes of the 21st century, but it doesn’t seem right for “Scoop” to so triumphantly settle on that moral as the big idea that might collect this movie into something more than news media cosplay. There’s no doubt the “Newsnight” team deserved a pat on the back after giving Prince Andrew enough rope to hang himself on national TV, but the victory lap they’re given here is wildly unearned at the end of a film that struggles to find a story beyond its own sensationalism.

Grade: C

“Scoop” will be available to stream on Netflix starting Friday, April 5.

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