The inevitable American adaptation of the six-hour BBC-TV miniseries that aired back in 2003, State of Play is a movie that effectively operates on two levels. On one hand, it's the latest addition to the "conspiracy theory" sub-genre, a proud movie tradition that houses such dynamic entries as The Manchurian Candidate, Three Days of the Condor and The Constant Gardener. Yet on the other, it's a representative of the type of film that might eventually go the way of the dodo: the newspaper yarn.
As a thriller, State of Play is crackling entertainment, even if its pieces don't always fit together after all is said and done. Russell Crowe, in his best performance since A Beautiful Mind, stars as Cal McAffrey, an old-school news reporter for the Washington Globe. Once the roommate of rising Sen. Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck) back in their college years, Cal is disturbed when he learns that his friend's comely assistant, who died after falling in front of a subway car, was also his mistress, a fact that threatens to derail Collins' political career. The story is assigned to the paper's political blogger, Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), while Cal is ordered to investigate a pair of late-night shootings that left one man dead and another in a coma. But once it turns out that both stories are tied together, Cal and Della pool their resources to research what eventually turns out to be a cover-up with far-reaching implications.
Director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) directs crisply and efficiently, wringing real suspense out of Cal's confrontations with a seasoned killer (most notably in a superbly edited sequence set inside a parking garage). As for the screenplay, I'm not sure what co-writer Matthew Michael Carnahan (Lions for Lambs) brought to the party, but I assume that the conspiracy material arrived courtesy of Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton) while Billy Ray (Shattered Glass) boned up the journalism aspects. At any rate, the sharp script is also often humorous, providing Crowe the opportunity to fire off some choice quips. He's in top form here, and he's backed by an exemplary cast. Even recent Doubt Oscar nominee Viola Davis turns up in one scene (as a nervous coroner), although it's Jason Bateman who really gooses the proceedings with his key late-inning appearance as a playful PR suit.
For all its success in the thriller arena, State of Play's real worth can be found in its attitude toward the newspaper industry. In an era in which any basement-dwelling hack with a keyboard and Web site can call himself a "journalist" (Cal has a great line about how the industry has been taken over by "bloggers and bloodsuckers"), and in which profit-driven publishers serve their shareholders rather than their readers, it's invigorating to see a motion picture that recalls the importance of the ink-stained newspaper as a tireless watchdog and champions the dedication of its honest reporters to relay all the news that's fit to print. Fit to print, people, not fit to Twitter.