As a thriller, State of Play is brisk, absorbing and all-around admirable, but what's sure to earn it gushes of giddy ink is its portrait of the big city newspaper as the last defense against a decaying social structure.

Russell Crowe is Cal McAffrey, the romantic stereotype of a rumpled, hard-drinking, morally flexible but still noble investigative reporter, the one every keyboard news jockey secretly imagines themselves to be. He's up to his Chee-tos-stained beard in dirt, digging into a mysterious D.C. double homicide that turns into a juicy political scandal when a pretty young congressional aide has a nasty run-in with a speeding Metro train. Trouble is, the dead girl was the lead researcher in an idealistic congressman's probe of a paramilitary outfit's Pentagon contracts (Blackwater-style), and she was also his mistress. Congressman (Ben Affleck) is also Cal's old college buddy who once had a fling with his wife (Robin Wright Penn).

Worse, Cal's forced to share a byline with a motivated but still-green blogger (Rachel McAdams), and squeezed by a (Helen Mirren) boss more concerned with shrinking revenues and impatient corporate owners than with getting the story right.

While the film's print-versus-online struggle and its corporate conspiratorial feel seem up-to-date, most everything else seems like a calculated throwback to past glories, from Crowe's All the President's Men corduroy blazers to McAdams' frilly Jean Arthur-style blouses. The retro feel is no accident — the script was co-authored by hotshot Tony Gilroy (Duplicity), a stylist steeped in '70s realism and punchy wordplay, and he sets a tone somewhere between the brawny morality of Sidney Lumet and the nervy paranoia of Alan Pakula.

For all its complexity, it's easy to predict the final headline, the film engages in revealing the fine print. Director Kevin MacDonald is so skillful, and the pace so sharp, that he sells the oddities, such as Crowe being Affleck's college roommate, though the latter's a decade younger. Affleck continues his career rehab with a believable turn. (And a preview of his own political future? Yikes!) McAdams does her best to keep up with Crowe, who commands every scene with easy charisma.

State of Play hits the all the correct thriller beats, deep down it's a fantasy about a better breed of public service, one that put the truth ahead of money, power and personal ambition. It's also a love letter to the dying world of daily journalism, and to the genre of the crusading journalist, which Hollywood has sold so well for so long.

Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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