A deliberately old-fashioned story about crusading journalists and the crooked politicians they keep in check, State of Play is satisfying without ever really soaring. The script is written, of course, by master of the twist Tony Gilroy (along with Matthew Michael Carnahan and Billy Ray), and strums along at a fiery pace that brings up big ideas without ever really delving into them. A combination of steely determination and gallows humor in the newsroom keeps the movie from dragging, and led by a paunchy and mesmerizing Russell Crowe, the stellar cast almost makes you believe in the power of newspapers again.
The very notion probably didn't seem so far-fetched back in 2003, when State of Play originally debuted as a British miniseries. But to director Kevin MacDonald's credit, he puts the story in the present as much as possible, making cub reporter Della Frye (Rachel McAdams) a blogger and not-so-subtly hinting at our real-life government's troubles with feckless firms like Halliburton and Blackwater. The massive conspiracy at the center of the story starts with what's apparently a random murder, a petty thief and a pizza delivery guy shot dead in a street. But not long after a pretty aide to Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck) jumps in front of a subway train, and when that aide is linked to the dead pickpocket, the story grows more complicated and important.
Doing all this linking is Crowe as Cal McAffrey, the kind of reporter with piles of paper on his desk and a pair of ill-fitting khakis for every occasion. He winds up investigating the story with Della, much to his chagrin, even as his past friendship with Congressman Collins and his wife (Robin Wright Penn) makes the whole "objective reporter" ideal nearly impossible. Meanwhile he's got serious demands from flinty publisher Cameron Lynne (Helen Mirren), who has the advertisers breathing down her neck, as well as Collins, who takes refuge at Cal's house when word gets out that he was having an affair with the dead Congressional aide.
Yeah, it's complicated. But whether it's thanks to Gilroy's trademark skill at weaving complex stories or the quality source material, State of Play never descends into murky "Wait, who was that guy?" speculation, and keeps a firm grip on its characters as they scramble all over Washington, D.C. in search of the truth. McAdams and Crowe make a great anchor for the complex conspiracy that unfolds around them, their bristling rivalry giving way to a surprising simpatico partnership. Affleck holds himself well as a stuffy politician with the air let out of his sails, and while the rest of the supporting cast is mostly just serviceable, Jason Bateman shows up late in the film in a terrific turn as an overwhelmed playboy publicist.
As much fun as it is to watch the hunt, though, State of Play stumbles with the conspiracy it eventually unravels, which involves corporate intrigue and government corruption rotely familiar from dozens of other thrillers stretching back decades. It's not just that we live in a cynical time where it's hard to feel proper shock; the movie doesn't quite end its rug-pulling finale, leaving us with a conclusion we probably could have reached in the first scene, before these tricky, interesting characters tried to work their magic on us.
Like this year's other twisty adventure Duplicity, State of Play succeeds by establishing a brisk tone early on and sticking by it, sweeping the audience along whether they like it or not. State of Play isn't as good as that other film, or as ambitious, but it provides similar narrative satisfactions, and a chance to get wrapped in a good story with great actors. e