By STEVE PERSALL
Times Film Critic
I could puff up and grumble about the myriad liberties taken with print journalism tactics in State of Play. I won't, because for all of its ethical and logical shortcuts, Kevin Macdonald's thriller entertains from start to finish.
In all fairness, newspaper reporters generally don't withhold evidence in murder cases, help suspects devise "a plausible alternate story" because they're friends, or stop presses for four hours on a hunch. Some journalists are as prickly and grungy as Russell Crowe appears here, but the resemblance to reality ends there.
Crowe plays Cal McAffrey, ace reporter for the appropriately fictional Washington Globe that, like most newspapers, is fighting rough financial times with new media techniques like blogs that Cal detests. He prefers the tough talk and personal touch of old-school journalism. As he tells Globe blogger Della Frye (Rachel McAdams): "Get a few facts in the mix next time you upchuck online."
Cal's latest story is a double shooting in an alley. A drug dealer is dead while an innocent bystander clings to life. That's the McGuffin that Macdonald uses to introduce Cal's reporting style, cajoling police acquaintances for leads and playing detective more than necessary. The latter skill comes in handy when another story breaks involving Cal's best friend.
Ben Affleck co-stars as Stephen Collins, a congressman crusading against Haliburton-style military contractors making billions off war in the Middle East. Investigative hearings on the issue are disrupted when a member of Stephen's research team is killed in a subway incident, possibly suicide. Stephen admits he had an affair with the woman, and a political mentor (Jeff Daniels) urges him to lie low for a while.
Stephen leans on Cal, for a place to sleep and advice on how to manage the scandal. Providing both will immediately set real-life journalists clucking. Before long, the "suicide" looks like murder, and the shootings Cal is investigating appear connected.
State of Play has plenty of tricks left, thanks to a trio of screenwriters seeming to compete for the top "wowza" moment: Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton) handles the cloakroom and daggers, Billy Ray lends and bends the journalistic savvy he brought to Shattered Glass, and Matthew Michael Carnahan (Lions for Lambs) keeps things topical. Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) keeps the paranoia level comfortably below hysteria.
Mainly, State of Play satisfies with a cast that keeps getting stronger with each introduction. Crowe is a sturdy antihero, badgering McAdams' inexperienced reporter into better journalism while breaking some rules. Helen Mirren makes a formidable managing editor, and Affleck's stiff acting is suitable for someone we can't quite trust. Jeff Daniels as a Christian conservative? By the time Jason Bateman arrives as a pompous, scene-stealing informant, State of Play can claim anything and I'd buy it.
What I really like, however, is Macdonald's affinity for newspapers over Web media, a position defined by the fact that this mystery might be solved, published and corrected several times online before Cal's throwback journalism gets it right. State of Play ends with a love song to newspapers, following Cal's story from "send" button through the printing plant and onto delivery trucks: Creedence Clearwater Revival's Long as I Can See the Light.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His blog, Reeling in the Years, is at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.