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Mad City, All the President's Men

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John Travolta, Dustin Hoffman, ...

One of the most curious aspects of L’Affaire Lewinsky is not that media reacted with all the professionalism of morally affronted piranhas. It’s that the public adopted such wait-and-see cynicism. After O.J., we understand that what used to be the media’s job –discounting rumor — has become ours.

What does this have to do with ”Mad City,” the Dustin Hoffman?John Travolta film to hit video on Feb. 24? Just that director Costa Gavras (”Z,” ”Missing”) batters us with the notion that TV reporters are soulless opportunists — and you may think, ”Your point is?”

A signpost for how far we’ve sunk is ”All the President’s Men,” 1976’s terse, crackling procedural that details how Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein, played by Hoffman, and Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) uncovered the trail from the Watergate burglary to the Nixon Oval Office. The pair are cast as stalwart knights of the free press, but the movie?s more aware of the personal costs of public reporting than is ”City”: In fact, Bernstein is presented as something of a schmuck, resorting to such tactics as crank-calling a receptionist away from her desk to get to her boss.

”City,” by contrast, is about ideas, albeit microwaved leftovers from ”Network.” Hoffman plays Max Brackett, a has-been TV journalist who stumbles into the story of his life at a museum, where a laid-off guard (Travolta, overplaying the muttonchop sensitivity) takes the museum director and some kids hostage. As the media circus amasses, Max prolongs the siege, yet ”City” can’t even decide whether he?s is a closet saint or sinner. (Hoffman?s performance, accordingly, never gets out of neutral.) The cri de coeur finale is meant as a call to arms. But we’re not mad as hell. We’re jaded as heck, and we’ll figure it out for ourselves. All the President’s Men: A?; Mad City: C?