Mad City, a descendant of Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole, may irritate orthodox movie buffs. In the coruscating Wilder classic, Kirk Douglas's supremely cynical newspaper reporter turns the rescue of a cave-in victim into "the big carnival" (the film's alternate title). The protagonist of Mad City, a TV reporter (Dustin Hoffman) who manipulates breaking news, is a victim of the big carnival himself. He emerges a tarnished hero, not an out-and-out villain.
Actually, that shift in moral perspective is the freshest thing in the movie--it keeps the action absorbing even when the script keeps hammering us with lessons about the commercial exploitation of the news and the TV audience's craziness and gullibility. Hoffman's Max Brackett (a reference to Wilder's sometime writing partner, Charles Brackett), like Douglas's inky wretch, is busted to the boonies, a small California town named Madeline. While reporting on cutbacks at a natural history museum, Brackett lucks out when a laid-off security guard (John Travolta) with a rifle and a sack full of dynamite shows up and holds the curator and a school group hostage. Like Douglas, he sees his coverage of a catastrophe as his ticket back to New York City.
But Brackett goes through quicksilver changes when he realizes that the security guard, Sam Baily, is a childlike innocent: a family man distraught over the loss of his paycheck, a descendant of George Bailey from It's a Wonderful Life. This Baily just wants his hoity-toity ex-boss (Blythe Danner) to listen to him (and rehire him). Reporting events as they break, without pause for analysis, Brackett turns a freak incident into a no-exit media event. At the same time, Brackett's microphone becomes Baily's best option for survival--the magic wand to transform his inchoate yearnings into honest-American soundbites.
The one thread in the film that never stops twisting is Brackett's ad hoc morality. He's attempting the impossible--to cover his ass from three different directions. His goals are to keep Baily confident in his loyalty and power, to assure his mossback local chief (Robert Prosky) that he's practicing sound journalism, and to protect the story from a rapacious network anchor (Alan Alda). Even when Brackett acts semi-righteous, trying to package Baily's goodness for the TV public, he cuts ethical corners, altering quotes to fit his bias.
Hoffman, as Brackett, is a solid pro playing a solid pro. He doesn't hit the ecstatic wild arpeggios that he does in Barry Levinson's forthcoming Wag the Dog, but he lands in a good groove. No matter how close Brackett grows to Baily (the film is being promoted in part as a platonic male love story), Hoffman stays taut and keen. He leaves the slops to Travolta, who at times depicts Baily as a cross between Forrest Gump and a shmoo--the endomorphic critter from Li'l Abner that would turn itself into breakfast if its human friends so desired. The failure is not entirely Travolta's. Tom Matthews's script views Baily as a sort of Cro-Magnon Non-Media Man: a guy who on the one hand can teach children about the white men's destruction of the Indian and on the other not know the definition of a "softball question." Yet when Baily's jejune sensitivity becomes outright farcical or dangerous, Travolta, too, has his moments. He and the haughty, maternalistic Danner, who treats the museum as a family heirloom, suggest the unarticulated ugliness of American class friction.
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Mad City has an Al Capp quality of its own. It takes place in a world where a catchphrase like Baily's "Is anybody listening?" can forthwith become a folkie song lyric and a media figure's ratings can plummet and rebound in 24 hours, like the stock market. Baily's accidental wounding of a black security guard immediately takes on a racist cast, underlined by the angry white men who support Baily and the black protesters who appear in "What about Cliff?" T-shirts. Director Costa-Gavras generally keeps a lid on the histrionics. In his calm hands, the excited, relatively unafraid child hostages provide an undercurrent of sanity; when the story veers away from them, the director shrewdly lets the action set the emotional frequency.
The result is in turn ultra-real and stylized. The movie is full of types, from Prosky's gasbag, would-be wise man to Brackett's all-about-Eve assistant (Mia Kirshner) and the empty-headed yuppie suits who run the network. What's novel and trenchant is how far the filmmakers allow us to put ourselves in Hoffman's cordovans as he maneuvers among self-aggrandizing bigshots, pious authorities and fickle young adults. Mad City can't escape the confines of a cautionary tale; it's got an awful hand-wringing ending. But when Hoffman's Max Brackett breaks into a sweat, it backs into a major theme: not media corruption, but corporate America's not-so-wonderful life.
Written by Tom Matthews. Directed by Costa-Gavras. With Dustin Hoffman and John Travolta.