There are so many wonderful actors in the political thriller "State of Play" -- Russell Crowe, Helen Mirren and Robin Wright Penn, to name a few -- that Ben Affleck stands out like a particularly large, tender thumb. Admittedly, it could be argued that his wooden performance is ironically well suited to his character, a speechifying, self-righteous U.S. congressman.
Taking some cues from such recent headlines as Chandra Levy and Blackwater, not to mention "All the President's Men," the genre's urtext, "State of Play" plays politicians and journalists against each other in a continually shifting game of back-scratching and back-stabbing. Congressman Stephen Collins (Affleck), a rising political star, is caught up in a scandal that may or may not have anything to do with a string of murders being investigated by Washington Globe reporter Cal McAffrey (Crowe). Caught in the middle is a plucky young blogger played by Rachel McAdams, who teams up with McAffrey to get to the bottom of events that spin more and more improbably out of control. (A subplot involving a publicist played by Jason Bateman is just plain wacky.)
Based on a hit BBC miniseries, "State of Play" features a handsome production and terrific performances from its aforementioned stars; Mirren has some especially choice moments as Cal's vinegary editor. But the filmmakers seem less interested in its text than in its subtext, in this case the death rattle of Old Media. "State of Play's" final montage, a loving valentine to old-fashioned newspapering, plays like a sepia-toned anthropological documentary about a vanishing indigenous tribe. On behalf of a beleaguered profession, this ink-stained wretch couldn't help but be touched. Thanks for caring, guys.