The transition from 2003 BBC miniseries to 2009 U.S. theatrical film has given State of Play a sixty percent reduction in running time, but director Kevin Macdonald still finds room for a new angle: now the political thriller doubles as a lament for the slow death of print journalism. No matter how morally ambiguous we may be expected to find seasoned, rumpled, etc. reporter Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe), you can tell from the way the camera pans lovingly over his clippings-strewn cubicle, and later his equally messy kitchen nook, that he's a man of analog, newsprint-stained integrity. Unfortunately, the film doesn't think you'll get it, and feeds Crowe awkward verbalizations of his disdain for the newfangled world of web news and blog gossip. Wouldn't you know it, the parent company is changing the paper's logo, too. What a world.
Crowe teams up with (yes) sexy cub blogger Rachel McAdams to investigate the death of a young researcher who worked for his old roommate Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), now a congressman fighting the military-industrial complex, and the old-fashioned newsroom environment has a buzzy (if overdeliberate) charm. But Macdonald, a proficient director capable of summoning suspense here and there, lacks the patience for a meticulous procedural. State of Play is less a tale of political intrigue than a gloss of one: legwork often hustles by in a blur, and even the more deceitful characters more or less say what they're thinking. Crowe and McAdams do their best to slip in little moments of personality, but their movie is all business.
A few character actors hint at more colorful miniseries sprawl: Jason Bateman is particularly delightful as a strung-out bisexual PR flak, and Helen Mirren has fun as the hard-nosed editor, even though she seems to be cast primarily because English curse words keep the language at PG-13 levels. Mirren's steeliness and white-blond hair bring to mind Glenn Close in The Paper, and in fact that film's dynamics echo throughout. That Ron Howard picture was a purportedly more lightweight entertainment than State of Play, and its fifteen years of age guarantee that it makes no claims to journalism-world currency. But its busy glimpse into a reporter's life, however cute, has a lived-in quality that no amount of shadowy party operatives, glowering assassins, or sentimentalized institutions can replace.