Broadcast Noose: a 'Mad City' Review
John Travolta's media martyr gets hung out to dry by Dustin Hoffman's scheming reporter in this knotty movie
Seen the new movie about the TV journalist who reports an important story with sensitivity, who demonstrates unimpeachable professional ethics, and whose good work is rewarded by an appreciative boss and a grateful public?
Trick question. Print journalists may still generate a certain positive, post-All the President’s Men buzz on screen for their enterprising, unglamorous ministrations in the service of investigative reporting (or, in the case of Julia Roberts in My Best Friend’s Wedding, of restaurant criticism). But in the movies, the men and women who toil in broadcast news for indecent sums of money, rouging their cheeks, shoving their cameras in the faces of defenseless citizens, and boiling complex issues down to snappy 30-second sound bites do not fare as well.
This is nuts, of course, since the film industry relies more heavily than ever on television to promote its wares, giving inordinate attention to the whims of entertainment ”news” shows that contain no news. But no matter. The spectre of a powerful medium run amok makes for dramatic moral lessons. Network sermonized with a satiric howl. Broadcast News commented with unsurpassed wit. Up Close & Personal didn’t even know what it was saying, but it said something or other about the toll TV ambitions take on high-strung women fickle about their hair color.
Mad City (Warner Bros.) makes its points with the kind of grim intensity that has always been a Costa-Gavras trademark. The man who directed Z, Missing, and Music Box sees nothing funny, nothing funny at all, about TV’s insane scramble to make audience-grabbing news out of the wispiest bits of fact. (In his town, everyone’s mad as hell, but they’re used to taking it.) Here, the wispy bit is that family man Sam Baily (John Travolta, generously playing bloated and none too bright), undone because his job as a security guard at a local museum of natural history has been eliminated, loads up an old shotgun and a bag full of dynamite, and demands his post back just as his ex-boss (Blythe Danner) is escorting a group of children through an exhibit of dinosaur bones. (Those dinosaurs, children, are print journalists.)
Ah, but zipping up his fly in the men’s room at that very moment after cranking out a dull report on the museum’s budget cutbacks (and still wired for broadcast!) is experienced, demoted-from-the-networks investigative reporter Max Brackett (Dustin Hoffman, onetime President’s Men newspaperman, in his first great movie role since Rain Man). Max spies what’s going on. A gun goes off. Aha, thinks Max, a hostage situation! He sees huge ratings, a chance to play again in the big leagues. He inserts himself into the story, intensifying the standoff in order to make better television. And … action.
There’s a great deal packed into this high-strung morality play: a little Dog Day Afternoon, a lot of Network, a stern scolding for the Branch Davidian disaster. There’s a cheap-shot dissing of celebrity network-news anchors (effectively embodied by Alan Alda) as blow-dried gods who parachute into hot spots; there’s an even cheaper-shot dissing of young women interns (simperingly embodied by Exotica‘s Mia Kirshner) as amoral bunnies willing to ditch all common decency for the possibility of advancement via canoodling. There’s so much, in fact, that Mad City staggers under the weight of its own apoplexy. The script, by newcomer Tom Matthews, is low on subtlety: ”No one cares about people like me!” wails Sam. ”This is America. It can make you crazy,” opines an immigrant cabbie in a vox-pop assessment of Sam’s culpability. And Costa-Gavras appears to care little about imposing visual or dramatic order on the proceedings, so impassioned is he by the urgency of his subject matter.