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Shining the light on the media circus

The first scene of Constantin Costa-Gavras' dutifully cynical film Mad City clues in the audience that this will be precisely the sort of slanted media statement that he's railing against.

The setup is a cinematic translation of the term "ambush journalism," which used to be cool when 60 Minutes did it but soured during the paparazzi pursuit of Princess Diana before her fatal crash. The scene introduces us to television newshound Max Brackett (Dustin Hoffman), who is preparing a surprise interview with a savings and loan shark.

Costa-Gavras displays this setup to look like a professional murder. Cables and microphones were filmed in the same methodical way we've already seen so many silencers screwed onto gun barrels. The only scene more ham-handed than this is the final shot, when Max is practically swallowed by the monster he helped create.

What those scenes are missing _ in fact, a quality missing from most of Mad City _ is a satirical momentum that could make audiences truly ponder the rights of a free press vs. the privacy of citizens. Instead, we get the message that Max is a killer of sorts, and his weapon is the 6 p.m. news. That premise is bludgeoned into our minds for two hours, using some of the most illogical abuses of journalistic ethics imaginable.

Without wit, such excesses seem elemental and easy to embrace or discard, depending on how you felt about the topic when you walked into the theater. Paddy Chayefsky, who tackled the subject two decades ago in Network, had the good sense to depict the insanity of TV news with a roster of sharply focused caricatures, each crawling over the other for the big ratings.

All of those neuroses and compulsions are wrapped into the role of Max, who stumbles into a story while he's covering a fund-raiser for a museum. It's a fluff assignment, the kind that Max has mostly endured since an on-camera showdown with network anchor Kevin Hollander (Alan Alda, once again playing against his nice-guy type). While Max is taking a restroom break, a laid-off museum employee named Sam Baily (John Travolta at his puppy-eyed peak) enters the museum and demands a meeting with the boss (Blythe Danner) to reclaim his job.

Nothing newsworthy about that, except that Sam is armed with a shotgun and dynamite, and there happens to be a class of field-tripping children stuck inside with him. Max alerts his assistant (Mia Kirshner), and the result is a media circus.

In the blink of a camera eye, Sam becomes a national icon whom Max calls "a poster boy for the disenfranchised." Anyone who feels slapped by "the system" hears his on-air confessions and sympathizes. That is, until the public's appetite for this story starts to wane, and coverage of Sam's siege becomes more of a media nuisance.

This scenario is ripe for either analysis or exploitation, and Costa-Gavras chooses the latter. There never is any vivid element of danger in Sam's actions, since he quickly becomes a peppy "uncle" to the children. When a museum guard is wounded, we're certain that it was an accident and Sam feels worse than anyone. Perhaps if Costa-Gavras had roughed up the character a bit, and made our feelings about him as conflicted as the fictional TV audience, there might be some lessons learned about the sort of heroes created by the media.

Fragments of solid ideas for drama whiz by like sound bites, or are buried in the filmmaker's biased vision. There isn't much made of the fact that Max's jump-the-gun coverage actually endangers himself and the hostages.

One brilliant idea that gets short shrift is the notion that reporters leap onto the bandwagon for no other reason than their own agenda, such as an African-American reporter who clings to suppositions of racism in Sam's actions. None exists in this case, but that minor subplot is one of the few times that Mad City has a chance to elicit any serious debate about media manipulation before it disappears.

Most of Mad City attempts to rally the American public against such journalistic abuses, yet with situations that are so false that any valid points Costa-Gavras wishes to make are neutralized. Witness the scene where two young hostages are released, and a stampede of journalists race up the museum steps, within a few feet of where Sam may be threatening the rest. Where is the police barricade? What reporters would put themselves that close to indeterminate danger, not to mention disregarding the safety of children?

It's such moments as these that betray the blind ambition of Mad City, using the same underhanded shortcuts to our emotions that some reporters must also admit. The more the stretches of logic accumulate, the less potent Mad City becomes, until all that's left is a misguided grumble from a guy with an ax to grind. Like the demented anchor Howard Beale in Network, Costa-Gavras is mad as hell and he's not going to take it anymore. Unlike Beale, the filmmaker doesn't convince anyone else to feel the same way.


Mad City

+ Director: Constantin Costa-Gavras

+ Cast: Dustin Hoffman, John Travolta, Blythe Danner, Mia Kirshner, Alan Alda

+ Screenplay: Tom Matthews

+ Rating: R; profanity, violence

+ Running time: 120 min.

+ Studio: Warner Bros.