"A piece this big, people should probably have newsprint on their hands when they read it."

The last time a character talked like that in a Hollywood newsroom, he was wearing arm garters and a 'round-the-clock fedora, and likely as not fishing through his desk for a pint of Scotch or a pack of smokes. Times have changed. But as print journalism continues to fade, the air of nostalgic reverence in which the trade is held only thickens. Thus the new big-city deadline thriller "State of Play," in which the words above are actually uttered.

The movie has some pertinent things to say — sometimes, as we see, sententiously — about investigative reporting, which is time-consuming and expensive, and under increasing attack by corporate bean-counters and the forces of short-take tabloid sensationalism. The picture also exhibits a familiar paranoia about the rise of Internet journalism, which is seen by print loyalists as a death knell for traditional standards of fact-checking and copyediting, a lawless medium in which reasoned discourse can be crowded out by pure rant. These are very good points, and they remain so even when the movie lapses into blather. When the harried editor of this picture's newspaper, The Washington Globe, disdainfully says, "Our new owners think we should turn a profit," we wonder when she might think it was ever otherwise.

What's remarkable about all of this topical edification is that "State of Play" isn't some sort of somber elegy for a dying craft. It's actually a tightly wound action-intrigue machine that's so fiendishly worked out that at the very end it nearly strangles on its ever-unfolding twists and turns and backtracking revelations. Until then, though, it's a wild ride.

Star reporter Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) is a big, stubbly unmade-bed of a newshound who appears to live on junk food and whiskey ("Irish wine"!), and who sets out in search of scoops armed only with pen and notebook. He might as well be wearing an "Old School" sweatshirt. Occasionally emerging from his trash-pit cubicle in the Globe newsroom, he is mildly annoyed by young Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), one of the paper's new breed of news bloggers. Della is a stranger to the notion of nursing a story along; whatever she unearths, be it limp factoid or frothy gossip, she throws it right up on the paper's Web site. Cal tries to show her the error of this way of working, but mentoring isn't really in his nature. ("I'm just trying to help you get a few facts in the mix next time you upchuck online," he tells her.) But Globe editor Cameron Lynne (Helen Mirren) values Della's other virtues: "She's hungry, she's cheap." Anyone who's worked in newspapers will appreciate the dismal accuracy of all this.

The movie kicks off in full cry, with a double shooting (the culmination of a crisply edited chase sequence that could be used as a film-school primer for staging cinematic action), and the introduction of a shadowy killer with a mysterious metal attaché case. Soon we meet Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), Cal's old college buddy, who now chairs a committee investigating a murky government security contractor called PointCorp. When Stephen's lead researcher in this investigation, a pretty redhead named Sonia Baker (Maria Thayer), gets pushed in front of a subway train, the story starts getting very complicated and, for better or worse, never stops.

Stephen was having an affair with Sonia, and soon the media have pumped it up into a scandal. Stephen's wife, Anne, (the elegantly resourceful Robin Wright Penn) isn't happy about this — but then it turns out that she's no stranger to affairs herself ... or to more disturbing things, for that matter. Tutoring Della as he connects the dots, Cal learns that there was more to Sonia than Stephen ever suspected. He also meets a strange girl at the morgue who has disquieting information to impart about custom-made ammunition — although not as disquieting as the erotic news Della brings back from a trip to a karaoke bar. There's also a shifty politician named Fergus (Jeff Daniels, oozing moral ambiguity) and a hilariously scummy PR guy named Dominic (another rich performance by Jason Bateman). Tying all these weird threads together — and dodging the creepy, dead-eyed killer and whoever's behind him — is running out the clock. Cameron the editor — an old-schooler herself — has agreed to hold the presses till Cal and Della have nailed down their story; but that's costing $20,000 an hour, so a non-negotiable deadline is definitely impending.

At several points in the film, we can see exactly where the story is going. Each of these points is soon followed, however, by a deflating realization that we have no idea where it's going, or in some cases even where it's been. Director Kevin Macdonald ("The Last King of Scotland") turns Washington, D.C., into a gleaming nightscape, and his impressively credentialed writers — Tony Gilroy ("Michael Clayton"), Billy Ray ("Breach") and Matthew Michael Carnahan (well, "The Kingdom") — infest it with all manner of intricate nastiness. It's too bad they take their story one twist too far, stretching our patience and snapping the neck of our willingness to follow any further. As complaints go, though, this one's disregardable.

Check out everything we've got on "State of Play."

Don't miss Kurt Loder's review of "17 Again," also new in theaters this week.

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