In theory, “Mad City,” Costa-Gavras’ new journalistic drama, features all the ingredients of his notable movies: a politically explosive situation, a socially relevant issue that lends itself to a vibrant cinema verite style, and major movie stars. In actuality, however, what unfolds onscreen is a simplistic and obvious expose about the manipulative power of the news media that by now is so familiar that its cynical perspective is not likely to upset or provoke anyone. Still, co-stars Dustin Hoffman and John Travolta should assure this fall Warners release a reasonably robust opening and mid-range numbers until it’s pushed out of the market by the season’s big guns.
Though scripter Tom Matthews, a former Hollywood publicist and print journalist, claims that he and his story-writing partner, Eric Williams, were inspired by the 1993 Waco, Texas, incident and its dubious press coverage, the real point of reference is Billy Wilder’s 1951 “Ace in the Hole” (aka “The Big Carnival”), in which Kirk Douglas played an immoral journalist who exploits an innocent man buried in a ruin for a “human interest” story.
Since then, numerous other American movies — “Network,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” “All the President’s Men,” “Natural Born Killers,” for starters — have disclosed the inner operations, and blatantly dishonest shenanigans, of the news media, to the point that it would now be hard to shock the public with revelations about how the media distorts the reality it claims to record objectively.
Protagonist is Max Brackett (Hoffman), a bright, aggressive investigative reporter known for always getting the story first. A bad on-air incident (presented in flashback) with veteran anchor Kevin Hollander (Alan Alda), in which the latter urged Max to be more graphic in describing the carnage of an airline crash, resulted in Max’s demotion to tracking down routine stories in the network backwater of Madeline, Calif.
Assigned to cover a story about the local Museum of Natural History, Max and his idealistic young intern, Laurie (Mia Kirshner), inadvertently encounter what is at first a minor incident. Sam Baily (Travolta), an honest security guard fired due to budgetary cuts, comes to the museum to talk to its “heartless” director, Miss Banks (Blythe Danner). When she refuses to discuss the matter with him, Sam fires one shotgun blast, which accidentally hits (and eventually kills) his buddy, a black security guard. As often happens in such stories, the devastating event occurs when the museum is being visited by a class of young children.
Smelling a juicy story, Max quickly phones his supervisor (Robert Prosky), and live coverage begins. Central drama revolves around the changing relationship between Max and Sam, who begin as opposites but gradually bond and develop respect and even love for each other. Max instructs Sam what to say and not to say, what demands to make and so on, soon becoming a liaison between the pathetic man, who’s accused of holding innocent children hostage, and the outside world.
“Mad City” is quite effective in showing how a small incident in a dormant town gets bigger and bigger until it becomes a major issue on the national agenda. Indeed, due to new electronic technologies — and the public’s insatiable thirst for sleazy and trivial “human interest” stories — within a matter of hours the entire country is glued to TV sets, watching the round-the-clock reportage. Soon, the museum’s grounds become an amusement park, with vendors selling all kinds of commercial products related to the event.
Unfortunately, Matthews’ script is not only deja vu, it’s also terribly schematic. Bearing some resemblance to the Everyman played by Michael Douglas in “Falling Down” (also produced by the Kopelsons), Sam is described as a hard-working, uneducated good ol’ American simpleton, a happily married man and responsible father whose only motivation is to regain his career. In fact, Sam is so ashamed of losing his job that he never tells his wife, continuing to wear his uniform and take his lunch to work day after day.
On the opposite pole of the social spectrum, Max begins as Sam’s nemesis, a successful and powerful professional, but when the two men get to know each other, they realize they share many values. Max turns out to be a cynic with a heart, though, predictably, it’s too late for this opportunist to stop the escalating lunacy once he realizes the disastrous effects of his action.
Some dark, inside humor crops up: When Sam suggests that Mel Gibson play his part in the TV movie based on his life, Max coolly replies, “Gibson doesn’t do television.” And when Larry King interviews Sam and Max interferes too much with his running commentary, the real-life host says, “Excuse me, but this is my show.”
It’s hard not to notice the movieish, secondhand nature of the material, including the characters’ names. Travolta’s Sam Baily is borrowed from Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Hoffman character Max Brackett alludes to Billy Wilder’s frequent writing collaborator, Charles Brackett.
Though marred by several feeble scenes about the obsession with celebrities (recalling the Hoffman starrer “Hero”) and a tempo that’s often too slow, overall pic is proficiently directed by Costa-Gavras. Prosaic as it is, “Mad City” is easily watchable and intermittently enjoyable — it’s not as silly or preposterous as “Hanna K.,” “Betrayal” and “Music Box,” the helmer’s contrived, femme-centered political melodramas.
Acting of the two stars is no more than adequate. Hoffman acquits himself honorably in an intense part that’s not particularly challenging. It’s an indication of the script’s limitations, specifically its lack of shading and subtlety, that even a resourceful thesp like Travolta has a hard time finding the right balance in his characterization. Like the film itself, the tone of his erratic performance changes from scene to scene, from sweet innocence to monstrous craziness, from cynicism to romanticism and back again. A superlative ensemble, which includes Danner, Alda, Prosky and Kirshner, is also hampered by one-dimensional roles.