The great masculine movie stars don't have to get showy to impose their strength. They can afford to understate it to let it speak for itself. Clark Gable had his twinkle of sexy mischief, Clint Eastwood has his no-frills squint and rasp, and Russell Crowe has a way of lowering his head and raising an eyebrow with a bemused simmer at anyone who dares to cross him, as if to say, ''Do you really think you're going to get away with that?''
In State of Play, the excitingly twisty and topical new politics-and-media conspiracy thriller, Crowe's Cal McAffrey, a veteran reporter for the Washington Globe, is the sort of jaded, slovenly, all-work-and-no-life civic gumshoe who generally spends a lot of time at least in movies mouthing off to his superiors, making a big, blustery show of what a battered knight of the newsroom he is. Crowe plays this standard role not by throwing tantrums but by lowering his voice to a mellow, courtly purr. With his face soft and round, and swathed in a beard and scruffy long hair, the actor may not look in the best of shape, but he uses that bloat merrily, as a way to fake us out. When he squares off with a colleague on the paper, a chirpy blogger (Rachel McAdams) who believes that getting the gossip ''angle'' on the news is the same thing as reporting it, you feel the sting of his warrior's contempt, and also the righteous joy he takes in being the guardian of something larger than himself.
Directed by Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland), from a screenplay by Tony Gilroy, Matthew Michael Carnahan, and Billy Ray that shrewdly compresses and Americanizes the superb 2003 BBC dramatic series, State of Play spins a thorny tale of political corruption laced with personal sleaze. A young woman, killed when she fell under a Washington, D.C., subway, turns out to be the research aide of Stephen Collins, a congressman played by Ben Affleck with just the right touch of furrowed-brow cardboard nobility. He announces the tragedy at the start of a hearing on the nation's use of private defense contractors. As he weeps with ''sincere'' dismay, we look at Affleck and think: What's he covering up?
He's hiding the fact that he was having an extramarital fling with the victim. Their affair provokes a white-hot media frenzy, but McAffrey, who happens to be old buddies with the congressman, senses that there's more to the story. Tangling with his editor, who has grown desperate in the age of dying newspapers (she's played by Helen Mirren, snappish as a piranha), he navigates the adultery scandal by uncovering what the tabloid smoke has shrouded.
Conspiracies are supposed to hit us with the shock of revelation. But when it's revealed, early on, that PointCorp, the film's fictional version of the Blackwater mercenary group, is planting its profiteering tentacles everywhere, we may think we've figured out most of the puzzle. We haven't. State of Play has enough layers of insidious surprise, as well as tasty characters like an unctuous PR guru played with high theatrical ''decadence'' by Jason Bateman, to keep even a seasoned political-corruption buff guessing. To get to the bottom of things, McAffrey has to use all of his low cunning, his man-of-the-people contacts (security guards, morgue attendants), and a diabolical gambit involving a videotaped interview employed as bait. What gives his investigation a gripping urgency is that it demonstrates, through the ingenuity and zeal of his every move, how vital the old-fashioned, step-by-step process of hardcore newspaper reporting really is.
The issue of newspapers fighting to stay alive in the Internet era exerts a particularly topical zing in State of Play. It's one of the first journalistic dramas to take up this theme, which arises out of the bickering partnership between Crowe and McAdams (perfectly cast as an ambitious wonkette). More than that, though, the movie's plea for the investigatory relevance of its hero's profession begins, after a while, to blur into the issue of the film's own relevance. If a thriller with the verve, fire, and yes the timely substance of State of Play can't catch on, then movies for grown-ups may well prove to be as endangered as newspapers. A–