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Review: 'State of Play' may be last of its kind

  • Story Highlights
  • Gripping "State of Play" may turn out to be last of newspaper films, reviewer says
  • Russell Crowe and Ben Affleck star as reporter and politician, respectively
  • It's a stretch to imagine Crowe and Affleck once were college buddies, reviewer says
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By Tom Charity
Special to CNN
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(CNN) -- These are not good times to be a newsprint journalist.

Ben Affleck plays up-and-coming politician Stephen Collins in the movie "State of Play."

Ben Affleck plays up-and-coming politician Stephen Collins in the movie "State of Play."

But let's not worry about that problem.

Let's worry about this one: What is Hollywood going to do without the cynical yet incorruptible investigative reporter, his seen-it-all-before editor, the banter of the newsroom and the built-in suspense of the deadline?

Try to imagine "His Girl Friday," "Ace in the Hole" or "All the President's Men" with Perez Hilton (or his avatar) in the lead. Sobering, isn't it?

The gripping (if a little anticlimactic) "State of Play" may turn out to be one of the last of its kind. At least it's a better epitaph for this distinguished subgenre than "Marley and Me" would have been.

Paul Abbott's 2003 BBC serial is probably the most acclaimed British TV series since "Traffik" (which was adapted into Steven Soderbergh's 2000 film "Traffic"), and the movie version feels like it's been a long time coming. Video Watch the stars talk about the film »

At one stage Brad Pitt and Edward Norton were talked about for the roles that are now played by Russell Crowe and Ben Affleck: ace newshound Cal McAffrey and his friend, up-and-coming politician Stephen Collins, whose congressional hearings into a Blackwater-type private security company are derailed when his researcher (and lover) turns up dead.

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The good news here is Crowe. Looking unexercised and unkempt, with hair down to his shoulders and an anti-establishment beard, he might have stepped out of any newsroom in the country. (In one scene, he wears an ugly plaid shirt that he might have found in the back of my closet.)

Arrogant and hardheaded, Cal is willing to exploit a friendship for a scoop, and at the same time to compromise his professional ethics out of loyalty, all without a twinge of self-doubt. This feels absolutely on the money, and yet Crowe still conforms to the image of the heroic reporter.

On the other hand it's a stretch to imagine that he and Affleck were college buddies -- there's an eight-year age gap -- and the actors only hint at the tense intimacy that is supposed to exist between them.

Robin Wright Penn is terrific as Collins' wife, forced by expediency to stand by her man before the cameras, and silently reflecting on her own flirtation with Cal as she does so.

Unlike the situation in the BBC series, the movie puts that affair firmly in the past tense, one of several intelligent shortcuts dreamed up by the stellar screenwriting team of Matthew Michael Carnahan ("The Kingdom"), Tony Gilroy ("Michel Clayton") and Billy Ray ("Breach").

For the most part they have stuck to the structure of Abbott's original, though the shadowy corporation that may or may not be pulling the strings is no longer in the oil business. Instead, as the private security outfit, it has designs on bringing its Iraq contracts back home. Again, it's a smart switch, even if that threat feels a little less ominous today than it might have a couple of years ago.

Nor has the plight of newspapers escaped the filmmakers' attention, though Helen Mirren hams it up something rotten as Cal's "Gor-blimey!" British editor. She's given to dark mutterings about "the new corporate owners" and that dubious business practice known as "selling papers," even as she funnels stories to blogger-in-residence Rachel McAdams.

If these scenes have a self-consciousness "now-ness" about them, "The Last King of Scotland" director Kevin Macdonald and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto draw a pleasingly edgy and oblique perspective on the back streets of Washington.

And though the story starts somewhat slowly, it snaps into focus with juicy cameos from Jason Bateman as a venal consultant and Jeff Daniels as a party power broker.

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For all its determined efforts to reflect the zeitgeist, "State of Play" is a satisfyingly old-fashioned entertainment. If it never transcends its source, audiences looking for a good, intelligent thriller may determine that in this case, for once, old news is good news.

"State of Play" is rated PG-13 and runs 127 minutes.

All About MoviesRussell CroweBen Affleck

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