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'Mad City': No News Is Good News

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 7, 1997

"Mad City" is for those who havenít seen enough movies about hostage situations. Itís also for those who havenít seen enough ponderous movies about media exploitation, or Dustin Hoffmanís ongoing reliance on muttery method acting. If youíre included in this group, read on. Maybe I can still talk you out of it.

Meet fallen-from-grace TV journalist Max Brackett (Hoffman), a grandstanding pain in the neck to his colleagues at a local Madeline, Calif., affiliate. A former investigative reporter, he was dumped from the network because he embarrassed CTN anchor Kevin Hollander (Alan Alda) on a live broadcast.

Seems he objected, on-air, to Hollanderís insistence at seeing plane crash carnage. Max used to have a soul. Now heís banished to the global village equivalent of Podunk, scrambling after anything that moves -- and little ever does. But on a routine report about the effects of budget cuts on a local museum, his prayers are answered.

Sam Baily (John Travolta), a security guard, and a victim of those budget cuts, returns to plead his case with director Mrs. Banks. He decides to bring a shotgun and a bag of dynamite. He doesnít mean to use them, but he really wants the snooty Mrs. Banks (Blythe Danner) to listen.

Max is still in the museum when Sam makes his entrance; so are a bunch of schoolchildren on a field trip. When Sam fires his gun in frustration, the bullet hits a security guard standing outside. Before you can say "Dog Day Afternoon," Sam (imagine Forrest Gump with sideburns and a thick Brooklyn accent) is an involuntary "gunman," and Max (whoís hiding in the bathroom) is hosting the live feed to his station. When Sam discovers the journalist, Max evolves rapidly into his mediator and confidant, while he also directs firsthand media coverage.

"John," Max mutters to his station chief (Robert Prosky), who balks at supporting Maxís ethically questionable position, "Iím not asking you to cross the line. You move the line."

"Mad City" was directed by Constantin Costa-Gavras, whose 1970 political thriller "Z" has set him up for a life as a filmmaker of profound heaviosity. This time Costa-Gavras (who also made "Missing" and "The Music Box") trains that self-important lens on the media, and how they influence us all, at the cost of human values. Or something deep like that.

While Max, Sam, the school kids and Mrs. Banks remain holed up, the media (headed by limelight-jealous Hollander) wait like a collective vulture outside. Sam Bailyís popularity (with everyone from soccer moms to white supremacists) blows hot and cold. His wife is pestered by paparazzi. His neighbors jostle for a moment in the spotlight. Maxís ambitious camera assistant (Mia Kirshner) gets up close and personal with Hollander. And the FBI waits for the right moment to rush in and destroy everything.

Like Oliver Stone in "Natural Born Killers," Costa-Gavras must think heís telling us things we donít know, or havenít considered, or havenít seen a billion times in other movies and every other medium. The media as part of the problem -- who knew? Maybe Sam Baily isnít the only naive guy in this movie.

MAD CITY (PG-13) ó Contains profanity, minor violence and important statements.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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