Russell Crowe as an investigative journalist in State of Play.

Russell Crowe as Cal McAffrey in State of Play

If only State of Play (Universal Pictures) had been the film it so obviously wanted to be: a throwback to the gritty conspiracy pictures of the mid-’70s ( The Parallax View, The Conversation, All the President’s Men) in which mature, sad, smart people trying to do the right thing are slowly ensnared in ever-expanding webs of political and criminal intrigue. That movie would have felt so timely right now. Our post-financial-crash malaise feels distinctly Watergate-ian (How long have they been screwing us over? Who knew what, when?), and the dire state of the newspaper industry lends State of Play’s pavement-pounding journalist hero a retro glamour. Even an ersatz ‘70s gritfest would have really hit the spot. But after a bracing first hour, State of Play defaults on the most basic promise of the conspiracy thriller. Instead of luring us down an ever-darker and twistier path, it strands us in a tedious and ill-designed maze.

In two seemingly unrelated incidents of violence, a junkie and a pizza deliveryman are gunned down in a Washington, D.C., alleyway, and the pretty aide to a U.S. congressman inexplicably throws herself under a train. The venerable yet fictional Washington Globe puts a reporter on each story: Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe), a veteran investigative journalist, will cover the alley shootings, and Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), a young blogger just hired by the paper, will cover the congressional aide. As it turns out, the two crimes are linked not only to each other but to virtually every act of wrongdoing ever committed in the capital: Della and Cal are soon up to their ears in scheming defense contractors, disgruntled Gulf War vets, corrupt legislators, and a deliciously sleazy PR flack played to the hilt by Jason Bateman.

This movie’s title should have not been State of Play but Conflict of Interest. There’s scarcely an information-gathering technique Cal engages in that’s ethical. Thanks to the strenuous efforts of a real-life Washington Post editor hired as a technical consultant on the film, Cal never goes so far as to pay for information. But he lies, illegally tapes interviews, withholds key evidence from the police, and threatens one recalcitrant interview subject with physical violence. More to the point, an editor as sharp as Cameron Lynne (a criminally underused Helen Mirren) would never have assigned Cal to the story in the first place; the congressman at the heart of the scandal, Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), is Cal’s former college roommate, with whose wife (Robin Wright Penn) Cal once had an affair.

State of Play was based on a 2003 BBC miniseries of the same name, and the compression of six hours of story into 158 minutes shows. At one point, Cal shouts down his editor over what the story he’s covering is truly about; is it a political sex scandal or a wider-ranging cover-up of government’s complicity with a Halliburton-like entity called PointCorps? We’re clearly meant to side with Cal—worldwide black-ops conspiracy trumps congressional nookie—but the movie itself can’t seem to decide whether to care more about the personal or the political. Director Kevin MacDonald’s last film, The Last King of Scotland, was a similarly uneasy blend of political and romantic intrigue.

State of Play was originally set to star Brad Pitt as the journalist and Ed Norton as the politician. Pitt’s dropping out was probably a blessing for the movie. Smart as he may be in real life, he doesn’t play smart on-screen, and he’d have been risible as a seen-it-all reporter, while Crowe, outfitted with long, hippie hair and a few extra pounds, is utterly believable as the slovenly but sharp-eyed Cal. But Norton might have made something of the role of the philandering congressman. Ben Affleck is, as ever, a tepid slab, and though his very emptiness makes him believable as a golden-boy politician, the back story of his college friendship with Crowe never rings true. What would they have had to say to each other?

Robin Wright Penn, who always seems to get stuck playing the martyr, brings depth and complexity to her small role as the outwardly loyal but inwardly conflicted political wife. I wanted a separate movie about her. Rachel McAdams, so pixie-ish she should have sparkly wings between her shoulder blades, does just fine as the blogger turned investigative journalist, but her character is reduced too soon to a cub-reporter helpmate. The final scene, in which the entire newsroom raptly watches while Crowe files the big story, amounts to wish fulfillment for journalists: Look out, world, I’m typing! But the elegiac closing credits, which follow the step-by-step process of physically producing a newspaper, are enough to make you renew your subscription.

Slate V: The critics on State of Play and other new movies