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State of Play (PG-13) ***

By Connie Ogle, The Miami Herald

Co-written by Tony Gilroy, who penned the tricky Michael Clayton and the even trickier Duplicity, State of Play displays its savvy without being quite so showy. Based on a British TV series, the film is a throwback to the political thrillers of the 1970s with distinctly modern sensibilities about Beltway politics, the role of private defense contractors in homeland security and the impending death of the newspaper industry.

Russell Crowe plays Cal McAffrey, a shaggy, old-school reporter in Washington, D.C., who disdains the advent of the Internet, bloggers and, apparently, hair-care products. Cal is working on a story about two shootings — a dead purse snatcher and a severely injured pizza-delivery guy targeted execution-style — when an even bigger story breaks: A congressman’s aide, who may have been having an affair with her boss, dies suspiciously in a metro station.

The congressman is Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), Cal’s old college roommate, who sits on a panel examining the outsourcing of defense contracts to private security firms. Soon, despite his rather obvious conflict of interest, Cal is digging into whether the deaths are related with the help of the paper’s Capitol Hill blogger Della Frye (Rachel McAdams). Cal’s not crazy about working with the kid at first, but he warms to Della’s smarts and doggedness, even rescuing her from exile by the paper’s top editor (Helen Mirren, taking over the role Bill Nighy played in the TV series), who behaves precisely as top editors do in movies, only she’s better dressed than any real editor would be.

The story winds around to include scenes with the congressman’s unhappy wife (Robin Penn Wright), with whom Cal has had a past dalliance, and a sleazy, bisexual, drug-addled PR specialist (Jason Bateman), who may hold the secret to what really set off this chain of events. Director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) keeps the action moving without losing sight of his characters and their emotions, and even though the film grows needlessly melodramatic in its final act, we’re too engrossed to care when a late development doesn’t quite add up.

A lesser script would insist that Cal and Della fall in love or at least into bed, but the filmmakers instinctively understand this isn’t a romantic story but one about the old guard’s learning to accept the new. The film’s grasp of contemporary newspaper etiquette isn’t quite solid — no front-page story runs only in a print edition because it ”needs to be read with ink on your hands,” nor does a reporter file a massive expose on a political conspiracy without an editor’s having glanced at it. But its depiction of a newsroom is so realistic you’ll be surprised to learn the scenes were filmed on a set. The good more than makes up for the bad. Now, if only we could say that about politics.

Cast: Russell Crowe, Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams, Helen Mirren, Robin Penn Wright, Jason Bateman.

Director: Kevin Macdonald.

Screenwriters: Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gilroy, Billy Ray. Based on the television series by Paul Abbott.

Producers: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Andrew Hauptman.

A Universal Pictures release. Running time: 127 minutes. Some violence, language including sexual references, brief drug content. Playing at area theaters.