One of the most curious aspects of L’Affaire Lewinsky is not that the news outlets reacted with all the taste and professionalism of morally affronted piranhas. It’s that the public accepted the Chicken Little approach with such benign, wait-and-see cynicism. In the post-O.J. landscape, we’re no longer shocked by media onslaught. We simply understand that what used to be the news outlets’ job — evaluating sources, discounting unsubstantiated rumors — has become ours.
What does this have to do with Mad City, the big-think Dustin Hoffman-John Travolta film that hits video on Feb. 24? Just that director Costa Gavras (Z, Missing) batters us with the notion that TV reporters are soulless, opportunistic bastards — and most viewers may find themselves thinking “Your point is…?” The movie wants to work us into a righteous anti-media froth, but do you know anyone besides media pundits who get lathered up about this subject anymore?
The film that’s often held up as a signpost for how far we’ve sunk is the 22-year-old All the President’s Men, which, coincidentally, also stars Hoffman as an intrepid newshound. And, true, this in-the-trenches look at how Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein uncovered the trail that led from the Watergate burglary to, ultimately, the Nixon Oval Office casts the pair as stalwart knights of the free press. But their armor is more tarnished than you may remember, and the movie is more subtly aware of the personal costs of public reporting than the strident, two-dimensional Mad City.
In fact, Hoffman’s pretty much a schmuck in both films; he just sprinkles on the charisma in President’s. While Robert Redford’s Woodward is scrupulously fair-minded, Bernstein gets to play the bad boy: crank-calling a receptionist away from her desk so he can get to her boss, coercing a fellow reporter to exploit an ex-boyfriend who worked for the Committee for the Re-election of the President, pushing into the house of a nervous low-level CREEP employee late at night. Woodward, you sense, wants the truth. Bernstein just wants the story.
Of course, the story turned out to be Watergate, and that, the film rationalizes, makes morally opaque tactics okay. What All the President’s Men is really about, in any event, is the process of investigative reporting: the endless phone calls, fact checking, interviews, and paper trails. Released in 1976, 19 months after Nixon had resigned, the film is steeped in the arcana of Watergate that were then common currency; if the names Maurice Stans and John Mitchell mean nothing to you, I’d recommend stopping by the encyclopedia first. Then you can appreciate the film as the terse, crackling procedural it’s meant to be.
Mad City, by contrast, is a movie of ideas. Unfortunately, the ideas are microwaved leftovers from Network and Billy Wilder’s caustic 1951 media satire Ace in the Hole. Hoffman plays Max Brackett, a has-been TV journalist who stumbles into the story of his life at a natural-history museum, where a schlumpfy laid-off guard named Sam Baily (Travolta, overplaying the muttonchop sensitivity) takes the museum director and a group of kids hostage. As the inevitable media circus (literally: jugglers, folksingers, fire-eaters, rap groups) amasses outside the doors and Max tries to both prolong the siege and keep “his” story away from a duplicitous intern (Mia Kirshner) and a glory-hogging network anchor (Alan Alda), Mad City asks the big questions. Should a journalist intervene if lives can be saved? Where does objectivity end and manipulation begin? Do these guys have any shame?
Valid subjects, yet Mad City thunders away with self-important outrage and a notable lack of wit. It can’t even make up its mind whether Max Brackett is a closet saint or just another sinner (Hoffman’s performance, accordingly, never quite gets out of neutral). He passes up a chance to take Baily’s gun and berates the intern for coming to the aid of a wounded man, yet he’s a moral standard-bearer compared with Alda’s corrupt desk jockey, and the cri de coeur that ends Mad City is meant to be his call to arms à la Network’s Howard Beale. But we’re not mad as hell anymore. We’re jaded as heck, and we’ll figure it out for ourselves, thanks.
All the President’s Men: A- Mad City: C-