Will there always be a place for movies in which the sainted words "Hold the front page!" and "Stop the presses!" still ring around the newsroom? State of Play is ambiguous on the question. On the one hand it bangs the drum for the integrity and even the glamour of newspaper reporting; on the other, it sees the writing on the wall of an industry being brought to its knees by the digital revolution and the incontinent 24-hour babble of the bloggers. If the latter does prove terminal to the print business, however, screenwriters everywhere will have to come up with a better line than "Stop the internet connection!"
This fast-paced drama, directed by the British documentarist Kevin Macdonald (Touching the Void), keeps the current crisis in journalism thrumming just beneath the surface of its story. The clash between old and new is intriguingly set up. Russell Crowe plays Cal McAffrey, a slobbish but driven news reporter who believes in the old-fashioned business of pounding the streets, talking to cops, working out the angles: open his veins and he'd probably bleed printer's ink. He writes for the Washington Globe, a venerable old paper that's under new corporate management – the sort that prizes sales and shares over the hard graft of diligent (and expensive) reportage. Cal's got his hands full investigating a double homicide in a D C back alley, so when a pert young miss named Della Frye (Rachel McAdams) stops by his cluttered desk to gather gossip for her blog, he sends her off with a polite snarl.
Della is pursuing a story about the apparently accidental death of a political staffer, who may or may not have been having an affair with an ambitious congressman named Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck). The latter happens to be an old college friend of Cal, who is now obliged to join forces with Della, in the course of which he explains the difference between hard news reporting and quick-fix blogging, not to mention the convenience of always having a pen handy – young people nowadays!
Their truce is brokered by the Globe's editor Cameron Lynne (Helen Mirren), who approaches the congressman scandal in her abrasively straight-talking way: "So was he knobbing her or not?" she asks Cal. The answer will unleash what Ms. Lynne would no doubt call a shit-storm of personal and political subterfuge, at the centre of which lies a shady defence contractor named Point Corp that is privatising homeland security. And congressman Collins is the man who's been trying to rumble them.
If any of this sounds familiar, it might be because you've already seen State of Play as a six-part BBC drama back in 2003. Paul Abbott's brilliantly scripted serial managed to be both intricate and expansive in a way that's impossible for a two-hour feature. But the TV series also got it right in terms of casting. Back then it was John Simm and David Morrissey taking the roles of the journo and the politician; it was important that you could believe that these two were, or at least had been, friends.
Crowe and Affleck, though individually good, aren't persuasive as old pals; their personalities simply don't fit with one another, and there's a palpable difference in age (Crowe is the older by eight years). This in turn puts a spanner in the subplot about Cal's one-time romance with Collins's wife, Anne, played with luminous sorrow by Robin Wright Penn: in the film we're never sure how long this triangle continued, or how it was resolved. But I still recall the tragicomic anguish of those three people in Abbott's TV version.
Macdonald makes the film work, all the same, with a script cuffed into shape by three A-list writers – Matthew Michael Carnahan (Lions for Lambs), Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton, the Bourne movies) and Billy Ray (Breach). Crowe, wide of girth, with a roadie's straggly haircut, irradiates the film with a sort of twinkling intensity, and makes a much more convincing reporter than Brad Pitt, originally slated for the role, would ever have done. His relationship with rookie blogista McAdams is also nicely worked, and refreshingly free of the romantic undertow that one might have expected in an American remake. Jason Bateman, as the sleazeball fixer played in the TV series by Marc Warren, is extremely good in a small role, bringing a whole PR subculture to life and revealing the nerviness just under his blowhard bluster. Jeff Daniels also briefly shines as a no-goodnik senator who crosses swords with Crowe during a rehearsal of Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf (the timpani is expertly timed).
It's a prestige picture all the way, supercompetent, polished, watchable – but oddly unexciting. Only once does Macdonald stage a set piece worthy of the great political thrillers of the '70s (All the President's Men, The Parallax View) he plainly admires. Cal, following a lead from a Point Corp insider, visits a grim apartment block and realises, too late, that he's pitched up right at the door of the crack assassin haunting the edge of the picture. His retreat into a basement car park and the sound of Crowe's harassed breathing as the killer stalks him are compellingly done. I would have liked more of the same.
Hats off at the end credits, though, which offer a sequence to warm the heart – and maybe bring a tear to the eye – of anyone who's grown up loving newspapers and print journalism. The camera watches as Cal and Della's front-page exposé is processed: the plates are set, the presses whirr, and a blur of newspapers reproduce the killer headline in multiples. It's a celebration of truth-telling, the old-fashioned, inky-fingered way. In time to come it may look more like its epitaph.
Have your say on State of Play at independent.co.uk/filmforum. We'll print the best comments in Wednesday's paper.