`Mad City' Plays Up Media Paranoia

MAD CITY Directed by Costa-Gavras Starring John Travolta, Dustin Hoffman

This just in! The newsmedia distorts the truth for its own nefarious purposes! Movies, on the other hand, always tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth! Details at eleven!

Mad City isn't quite that glib and preachy; but it gets dangerously close. Director Costa-Gavras, whose much-Oscared filmography includes the 1982 Missing (Best Screenplay) and the 1969 Z (Best Foreign Film), taps into the nation's anxiety about the growing influence of the media--a strategy that is certain to pay off in the wake of the Princess Diana tragedy. Gavras is particularly concerned with the "personal responsibility" of grandstanding journalists like Mad City's protagonist, Max Brackett, who walks the fine line between reporting the news and creating the news. "We all move the line," Gavras says, "but when we cross the line, that's when we get into trouble." Unfortunately, the righteous, sermonic Mad City can't seem to resist crossing that line itself. The film ends up courting the very sin it condemns: warping reality to suit a certain agenda.

Let's be fair: all movies warp reality. It's only logical to expect a more faithful adherence to fact from the evening news than from Hollywood, as Gavras is quick to point out. "This is not a documentary," he says. "It's a show. When people go to the movies, they make a choice to see a show. When they turn on the news, they expect to see the truth." But when people go to the movies, they also hope to enjoy textured, multi-dimensional stories that capture the complexities and ambiguities of human life, elements Mad City chooses to forsake in pursuit of powerful images, punchy lines, and contrived plot devices to drive home its message. Character development and story integrity suffer accordingly.

This wouldn't be a problem if Mad City weren't such a character-driven piece. Echoing Billy Wilder's 1952 Ace In The Hole, the film aligns two distinct personalities--the hardened reporter and the simple, down-on-his-luck everyman--and pits them both against the senseless juggernaut of popular culture. "This movie is about people," Gavras says, and the people who star in it are indeed its finest assets. Dustin Hoffman plays Max Brackett, a hotshot national news reporter who has been demoted to a backwater affiliate station in northern California after a mysterious incident involving celebrity anchor Kevin Hollander (Alan Alda, in a stonier version of the egomaniacal media mogul he played in Crimes and Misdemeanors). The worldly, ambitious Brackett is earger to regain his position at the network. So when he finds himself locked in a museum with unstable gunman Sam Baily (John Travolta at his raunchiest), a class of rowdy schoolchildren and a developing hostage situation, he's overjoyed to have found his ticket back to the big leagues.

The rest of the film follows Brackett as the strategically escalates the crisis to suit both his interests and (he thinks) those of the hapless Baily, who pulled the stunt only as a last-ditch effort to recover his job at the museum, and is bewildered by the chubbub he has created. Predictably, Brackett loses control of the media circus (complete with clowns, in this version), and the situation spins swiftly towards disaster.

Hoffman is superb, underplaying even the punchiest lines for maximum effect. A spotlight line such as, "You're the best show in town, Sam," might have amounted to little more than a melodramatic leer in the hands of a less talented actor; Hoffman delivers it quietly, almost swallowing the words, and the effect is chilling. To its own detriment, the script fails to learn from his example. Writers Tom Matthews and Eric Williams, journalists themselves, cannot resist hammering home their message. "I don't want to cross the line," Brackett tells his boss; Lou, at the beginning of the movie, "I just want to move the line." Cheesy, perhaps, but certainly forgivable in terms of moviespeak. But later, as the film's climax approaches, the writers are apparently worried we may have forgotten their little zinger. "How's moving the line going, Max?" Lou asks the humbled Brackett, who has suddenly rediscovered his conscience. "Can't be moved," Brackett answers, "I know that now." Ladies and gentlemen, we give you...the moral!

Throw-away lines are bad enough, but throw-away characters are inexcusable. Some of the smaller roles, including Blythe Danner's inexplicably mouthy museum curator, Ms. Banks and Mia Kirshner's doe-eyed intern, Lori, are disappointingly one-dimensional. Kirshner's character is particularly objectionable: we watch as she shifts her allegiance from one powerful man to another, vamping whoever appears to be in charge. She even seems amenable to a sexual relationship with Brackett if it will advance her career. Gavras claims she represents "the loss of innocence," but her bovine willingness to be seduced by the powerful reporters around her is simply distasteful and sexist in the extreme.

This parade of shallow characters and empty stereotypes is evidently unintentional. "People are not good guys or bad guys," Costa-Gavras says. "Nobody's an angel." Perhaps, but some of them certainly come off better than others in the world of Mad City. Travolta's Baily is the sweetest, most lovable terrorist ever created for the screen: a made-to-order innocent for the media to crucify. His childlike naivete is charming at first, but after a while, one begins to wonder if he could successfully floss his teeth without injuring himself. In short, Sam Baily is just a little too vulnerable. The film might have been more interesting had he been portrayed as a troubled adult instead of a confused child.

Hoffman's Brackett is by far the most complex and believable character of the bunch. Still, the writers need him to become more sympathetic as the climax approaches, and they try very hard to make us like him again, a feat which requires some serious mid-movie plot engineering (up to this point, we've only seen him capitalizing on tragedy and weighing the pros and cons of seducing Lori). Halfway into the film, two wolfish network producers inexplicably show us a clip of Brackett and anchor Hollander on the site of a gruesome airplane crash. Shaken by the carnage he has just witnessed, Brackett explodes at Hollander's request for a gory description of the scene, humiliating his powerful colleague on national television and establishing himself as a sensitive man damaged permanently by the unholy forces of the media. The segment itself (based loosely on a similar incident which occurred at the crash site of TWA Flight 800) is well-acted by both Hoffman and Alda, but its position within the film is so obviously contrived that its impact is diminished.

As for bad guys...well, thank God for the good old FBI. The federal agents dispatched to handle the situation are portrayed as soulless automatons, and the local sheriff they corrupt into doing their nefarious bidding is almost as dim-witted as Baily (despite heroic efforts at subtlety by Silence of The Lambs's Ted Levine). Costa-Gavras insists that the FBI are simply caught up in the hubbub, trying to do their job as best they can; but when he depicts Bureau snipers blowing away a wax statue of a Native American in a botched attempt to nail Baily, one starts to suspect a hidden agenda. The writers cite Waco as their inspiration for the story, and a definite anti-FBI bias comes through loud and clear.

To Mad City's credit, it contains some truly breathtaking moments. While the soundtrack itself leaves something to be desired, the sound is fantastic, especially the deafening roar that occur; when a stampede of reporters rushes to engulf the children Baily releases from the museum (the poor kids are far more terrified of the media than they were of Baily). The film also makes good use of its claustrophobic setting--the interior of a stuffy old natural history museum. A dinosaur skeleton occupies a central position throughout the movie, lending an eerie atmosphere of impending doom to the events Gavras films through its bare ribs. Especially compelling are the images of television screens broadcasting garishly amid the flotsam and jetsam of American history, which consist primarily of extinct or endangered animals and routed indigenous peoples.

Mad City is at its best in its subtler moments. During Brackett's interview, for example, a folksy guitar strums gently in the background as Baily plies millions of viewers with his simple charm. When Brackett cuts abruptly to a commercial, both guitar and Baily are unceremoniously replaced with a garish sneaker advertisement. The spell is suddenly broken and the effect is undeniable: we realize we've been played, effortlessly manipulated by a half-wit and a cheesy soundtrack.

Unfortunately, for every one of these elegant moments, there are two or three heavy-handed ones to drown it out. And by the time lightning and thunder begin to roll on cue, we realize we're watching a sermon, not a movie. Admittedly, the subject of sensational journalism offers plenty to preach about. "Today, the journalist discovers the news at the same time as the audience," Costa-Gavras warns, "He doesn't have time to put events into perspective." Gavras makes an excellent point. Mad City could also have profited from a little perspective. Its creators failed to notice that they themselves had crossed a line--the one that separates shrewd commentary from polemic."Photos courtesy of Warner Bros,TWO RING CIRCUS: DUSTIN HOFFMAN (left), shines as a hard-boiled reporter who exploits the story of a simple-minded janitor's (JOHN TRAVOLTA, below) revolt against society.