State of Play's thrills put reporters above the fold

The political thriller State of Play finds a fresh angle on the depth of Russell Crowe’s talents as an actor. Slovenly but uncompromising journalist Cal MacAffrey may not be as memorable a Crowe role as the brooding gladiator or unstrung mathematician, but it reveals how an actor can subsume personal feelings in pursuit of a truthful, fleshed-out character.

“Russell had such contempt for the press to begin with. He hates reporters,” State of Play director Kevin Macdonald told the New York Times. Despite Crowe’s animosity toward the fourth estate, he makes Cal a tarnished but dedicated upholder of journalistic integrity, even as an explosive scoop puts his relationships at risk. Crowe anchors an engrossing film that offers a timely tribute to print newspapers during their possible twilight.

A veteran newshound at the Washington Globe (a thinly disguised Washington Post), Cal happens to be longtime friends with young Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck). Stephen makes headlines when his office’s comely young researcher dies in front of a subway. When the lawmaker tears up at a televised committee hearing, the instant news cycle on cable and the Internet immediately buzzes with lascivious speculation.

Stephen acknowledges indiscretions and despairs for his political prospects, well aware that he’ll be more famous for the scandal than any legislative accomplishment. His wife (Robin Wright Penn) makes a dutiful statement of public support, although outside of the limelight she seethes with resentment and has a sexual history with Cal. Cal wrestles with the frequent journalistic dilemma: Do you protect your friends, or exploit them as sources.

Meanwhile, the reporter learns that the dead woman had a connection to a brutal double shooting. The story of the congressman’s marital indiscretions metastasizes into a full-blown conspiracy involving assassinations, the corridors of power, and a conniving publicist (the splendidly oily Jason Bateman). It may be no coincidence that the deaths coincide with Stephen's investigation into PointCorp, a private security conglomerate clearly inspired by Blackwater fictionalized as the current heavies on “24” these days]).

The U.S. version of State of Play has a tough act to follow. Director David Yates' top-notch 2003 original BBC miniseries found complex thrills in both journalistic investigations and the political process. As a result, Yates won the helm of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and probably the remainder of the Hogwarts franchise.

Kevin Macdonald, best-known for directing The Last King of Scotland, does a respectable job of distilling the story from six hours to two, but still makes sacrifices. The British version included far more of the Collins family and featured a Shakespearean turn by David Morrissey as the distraught member of Parliament. The American State of Play pushes Stephen further to the margins, although Affleck acquits himself fine. As in Hollywoodland, he plays a tarnished golden boy shot through with frustration and anger.

The new State of Play gives equal time to Cal’s relationship to a highly revised young reporter, Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), here an Internet-savvy political blogger. Cal initially treats Della with the contempt you imagine Crowe feels toward tabloid reporters. State of Play generally holds a condescending view of bloggers as fake journalists. In between conventional but effective action scenes, Della’s subplot could be called the "Education of a Young Blogger," but her peppy polish deflects Cal’s scruffy arrogance. If they play pupil and mentor, then Helen Mirren serves as the headmaster in the role of the newspaper’s editrix who struggles under corporate pressures.

State of Play drops some gratuitous references to the Watergate Hotel to evoke the press’s role in exposing Nixon-era shenanigans. The film’s occasionally corny arguments in favor of old-fashioned, shoe-leather reportage nevertheless can melt a jaded heart. The closing credits, accompanied by an elegiac Creedance Clearwater Revival tune, follow a front page from production to the delivery trucks, and feel like a loving send-off to a passing industry. You can imagine watching State of Play with your grandkids and saying, “There used to be these big machines called ‘printing presses,’ see ... .”