In Theaters: State of Play

Movieline Score: 7
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Take All the President's Men, add liberal doses of potboiler melodrama and existential journalist angst, and you've got the foundation for State of Play, director Kevin Macdonald's stateside adaptation of the hit 2003 BBC miniseries. Its muscular provenance alone could have supplied enough horsepower for liftoff, and in general, the filmmaker's command of D.C. intrigue -- not to mention an ensemble cast cut from his same Oscar-winning cloth -- clears the runway with plenty of room to spare. It's his crazy landings, however, that viewers need to worry about.

Hardened, hyperconnected Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) pounds his beat at the Washington Globe, a once-proud newspaper on the run from the coming Media Apocalypse. Among its harbingers: Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), the resident blogger whose introduction to Cal amounts to a request for dirt on his old college buddy and current Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck). It seems Collins's key aide had a fatal run-in with a subway train, right in the middle of their investigation of PointCorp, a Blackwater-esque defense contractor. Dumb luck there, especially considering their rumored love affair behind Mrs. Collins's back.

As the reporters chip away at their respective stories -- Della on the aide's suspicious suicide, Cal on a suspicious homicide, both soon linked to implicate PointCorp -- their clashing mandates demand reconciliation and not just a little collaboration. Crowe's seasoned pro struts through the capital with unusual calm for a man closing in on the scoop of his life, yet he and McAdams sustain the ensuing procedural with nifty, unfussy chemistry. Macdonald contains the sprawling plot with control that somehow eluded his much simpler dramatic debut The Last King of Scotland. Which isn't to say his dynamic duo pose any threat to, say, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, both of whom would likely cringe at the conflicts of interest aiding the Globe's investigation. (Indeed, Cal's one-time liaisons with the Congressman's wife will probably cost him his Pulitzer Prize.)

Meawhile, back at the newsroom, Helen Mirren gnaws cubicle scenery as the irascible editrix pinned down by "new corporate owners," a vaguely Murdochian cabal for whom Cal's patient unraveling won't pay the bills. That dilemma entitles A-list screenwriters Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gilroy and Billy Ray to much hand-wringing about the nature of journalism and media in general; "Hold the story," Crowe mutters en route to his climactic on-the-record showdown, as if the "story" wouldn't have already trickled out on any real newspaper's Web site days earlier. But, as the rehabilitated blogger Della smugly agrees, "With a story this big, people should probably have newsprint on their hands when they're finished." Right.

Dodgier still are Macdonald's instincts for closure, which fail to meld State of Play's personal and political crises as successfully as those in his first hour. The trouble starts with arrival of Jason Bateman in a fantastic extended cameo; alas, his douchey PR maven is less a crucial missing link than a messy, overextended contrivance shattering too many narrative illusions at once. By the time Crowe and the miscast Affleck realize who's grifting whom, Play has devolved into little more than shrill Capitol kabuki. Macdonald even adapts the ending of President's Men, tying the convolutions into one succinct headline screaming from the next day's paper.

Yet in this parallel movie universe where self-loathing reporters steal phone numbers and other police evidence with impunity, plagiarism seems the least of its transgressions. And with pedigree outranking pulp in any case, State of Play could fly on class alone. In the end it doesn't have to, but it could -- and likely should -- be a little smoother ride. RATING (out of 10): 7



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