The new political thriller “State of Play” almost immediately dates itself — not because its protagonist is part of that dying breed, the dogged newspaper reporter, but through the film’s obvious disdain for online media. Characters tend to pronounce the word “blogger” with the disdain normally reserved for “booger.”
Russell Crowe stars as Cal McAffrey, an ink-stained wretch of the shaggy-hair-and-corduroy-blazer school, who begins the film looking into the random murder of a transient and a pizza-delivering entrepreneur in an alleyway. Soon, however, everyone’s talking about the suicide — or was it? — of a female staffer for Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck); Collins’ on-camera breakdown during a House hearing makes it obvious that he and the young woman were more than just professionally involved.
Cal and Stephen are old college pals — and Cal has entanglements of his own with Stephen’s wife Anne (Robin Wright Penn) — so he winds up working on the story about the dead girl. And because movies like this always have to pull together seemingly unrelated incidents — why spend time on the double-homicide otherwise? — Cal discovers a conspiracy involving both crimes, the Blackwater-ish corporation being investigated by Stephen and an ever-expanding web of complicity.
Aiding Cal in his pursuits is the aforementioned maligned blogger, Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), who grows to respect her old-school mentor’s methods. (“State of Play” can’t be bothered, however, to let the new-media proficient Della teach Cal anything.) Bossing both of them around is editor Cameron (Helen Mirren), under pressure from the paper’s new owners to move more units; in classic newspaper-movie mode, Mirren gets to shout things like “You’ve got eight hours!” and “I’m taking you off the story!” a lot.
“State of Play” starts out like an “All the President’s Men” wannabe, but the story eventually begins very cleverly twisting upon itself in a way that never feels like a cheat or an insult to the audience’s intelligence. The script, an adaptation of a British TV production, is the product of three veterans of newspaper movies and political thrillers: Matthew Michael Carnahan (“Lions for Lambs”), Tony Gilroy (“Michael Clayton”) and Billy Ray (“Shattered Glass”).
Director Kevin Macdonald (“The Last King of Scotland”) crafts some exceedingly suspenseful moments — a sequence featuring Cal and an assassin in an underground parking garage is particularly heart-stopping — and assembles a stunning cast of character actors, including Jason Bateman, Viola Davis, Harry Lennix, Josh Mostel, Michael Weston, Jeff Daniels and Katy Mixon. And even if the movie treats her character badly, it’s nice to see MacAdams back in the spotlight — her girl-reporter routine here reminded me how much I would have preferred to see her play Lois Lane in the last “Superman” movie.
Affleck is utterly convincing as a slick politician with a skeleton or two in his closet, even though the movie gives him two big emotional scenes that take place on the congressional podium — if there was this much drama on Capitol Hill everyday, C-SPAN would get much bigger ratings. Crowe doesn’t have much chemistry with Wright Penn, but he’s always fun to watch as a relentless journalist giving his all to what people keep reminding him is a doomed trade. (The movie obviously begs to differ — a climactic sequence actually features most of the newspaper staff watching in awe as Cal ... types.)
Ultimately, “State of Play” goes about one plot twist too far to rank among the great D.C.-based paranoid thrillers, but most of the script’s whiplash turns, combined with such an extraordinary ensemble, keep the movie from getting bogged down in committee.