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Mad City

movie review by
Gary Johnson

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Warner Bros.

Official Web site for MAD CITY

Mad City is so similar to Billy Wilder's acerbic, noirish melodrama Ace in the Hole (aka The Big Carnival, 1951) that it could qualify as a remake. Both movies give us a situation that a news reporter helps manufacture to his own benefit. But whereas Ace in the Hole gave us a bitter, unrelentingly cynical portrait of American greed, Mad City takes a softer approach that eschews angst in favor of satirical/comedic jabs at television news journalism. However, the narrow focus of the satire in Mad City tends to drive home the same points over and over and in the process the satire becomes mechanical and manipulative.

Mad City gives us Dustin Hoffman as television news reporter Max Brackett . Brackett once worked for a major television network, but after an altercation with the news anchor, Kevin Hollander (Alan Alda), Brackett was exiled to small-time television markets. His drive to get back on network news makes him "relentless"--as his current boss (played by Robert Prosky) tells us. While assigned to cover the recent layoffs at the local county museum, Brackett stumbles upon a story in the making: a recently laid off security guard, Sam Baily (John Travolta), shows up at the museum with a shotgun and a bag full of dynamite. Sam isn't particularly bright. (A friend describes Sam as "Gullible. . . . You can tell jokes on him. . . . Whoosh.") Sam just wants to get the attention of the museum's proprietor (Blythe Danner) and make sure she listens to him. However, the situation quickly elevates after Sam's gun accidentally discharges and injures a security guard. Brackett jumps on the situation and begins a live broadcast from the museum's restroom. Brackett does much more than just report the news, though. And the fact that he puts the story on television definitely elevates the situation even further yet. He ends up coaching Sam on what to say to the police and even puts ideas into his head.

One of the wonders of Mad City is the casual way the initial situation convincingly picks up momentum and becomes out of control. Director Costa-Gavras (who also gave us Missing and Z) shows how easily the tone and intent of news reporters can shape news stories far beyond the facts. For example, Brackett knows that Sam has no intention of using the dynamite, but when Brackett meets with the police, one of the first things he says is "He has enough dynamite in there to level the place." His intentions are clear: to instill fear, to attract more police cars, and to turn the situation into a headline grabbing event. Meanwhile, the hostage school children cavort in the museum halls, eating pizza, and laughing, while Brackett describes them on his news casts as "scared."

Director Costa-Gavras gives us a fascinating situation, but the movie starts to unravel when Alan Alda's news anchor enters the picture. Kevin Hollander ("I'm the man American turns to for news") is a broad caricature of a news anchor, a vengeful and narrow-minded creation who only exists to further emphasize what the film has already made clear--that network news exists to exploit volatile situations. When the filmmakers deliver the key scene that shows the source of friction between Brackett and Hollander, we're given a completely improbable situation: at the crash site of a passenger jet, Hollander interviews Brackett about the carnage at the crash site. "Did you see any body parts?" Hollander asks. "You want body parts? What do you want? A leg or an arm?" Brackett becomes the man of moral principals who becomes aghast at Hollander's questions. With this scene, the filmmakers begin Brackett 's transformation into the moral center of the movie. And that's where the movie's machinations become obvious: the filmmakers needed someone worse than Brackett so that he can seem good in comparison. We even get a horde of FBI agents waiting in the wings for the publicity polls to show that public interest in Sam's situation has wavered--and then they'll descend on the museum and kill Sam.

In the process, John Travolta's Sam becomes cartoonishly simple. And Travolta is no Billy Bob Thornton. His mannerisms and facial quirks are designed to be seen by the camera--not as natural outgrowths of his character. Meanwhile, Dustin Hoffman delivers an amazing performance, but the lack of complexity at the heart of this movie robs his performance of its impact.

[rating: 2½ of 4 stars]

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