State of Play ($29.98; Blu-ray $39.98) is a fairly nifty thriller with a few trenchant observations about covering the news.
Based on the six-hour British miniseries, the film — directed by Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) — involves a couple of killings that are tied to a young, up and coming congressman named Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), who is on a committee investigating a private-security contractor (think Blackwater).
A friend of Collins, Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe), is assigned by his editor, Cameron Lynne (Helen Mirren), at the fictional Washington Globe to head up the coverage for the newspaper, which like most papers today is trying to survive in a world of the Internet and 24/7 news television. The scruffy McAffrey — long-haired and a little overweight — is a veteran reporter, so he's a bit miffed when Lynne pairs him up with the young blogger Della Frye (Rachel McAdams).
The film scores a few points about the nature of news-gathering in the clash between the two. Newspapers have been forced to make cutbacks; the Web and cable news channels are good for covering breaking flashes and scandals, but they rarely dig deeply. Institutions are very good at covering up misdeeds, which leads you to wonder whether the Pentagon Papers or Watergate would even become stories today. It usually takes time and resources to find the truth, and newspapers are caught between trying to maintain good reporting and competing with new media, even as they try to become part of new media.
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State of Play, though, remains two-thirds a thriller. It gets a bit disjointed toward the end (crunching it down from the original six-hour miniseries will do that), and a few things strain credulity (stopping the presses for four hours wouldn't happen today). But Macdonald keeps things moving, and the film is helped by a sly, informed performance by Crowe, and the presence of another Oscar-winner in Mirren, who gives State some weight. Jeff Daniels as a snake-in-the-grass representative and Jason Bateman as a sleazy D.C. lobbyist also are terrific as supporting players.