There is a moment -- actually two -- when local television
reporter Max Brackett could have put an end to the hostage crisis that
ends up gripping the nation. Sam Baily, the none too bright,
disgruntled employee has laid down his sawed-off shotgun. As Sam turns
his back, Max has a brief opportunity to grab the weapon. As anxiety
flashes across forehead, Max's eyes draw a bead on the shotgun, but his
body stays frozen. His inaction guarantees the continuation of the
story of his career.
Famous director Costa-Gavras has to date created a body of work
with an underlying theme of tension and terror. From his Academy Award
nominated direction of Z to his more recent efforts including MISSING
and MUSIC BOX, his films have a hard-edge that leaves moviegoers
squirming uneasily in their seats.
His most recent film, MAD CITY, represents a change of pace.
Although the hostage situation might sound like his previous films, it
isn't. The script by Tom Matthews, based on a story by Eric Williams
and Matthews, stays firmly in the comedic range. Partly a commentary
on media excesses and partly a black comedy, the script skirts a fine
line between the two, which could be considered its major weakness.
Had one or the other of them been more fully developed, it would have
been a better movie. And in the latter case it would have been even
more like BROADCAST NEWS, the show it most closely resembles. (Robert
Prosky plays roughly the same part as a newsroom executive in both
John Travolta, an actor with an increasingly wide acting range,
plays Sam Baily. With Sam's sad sack look, his pot belly, his rumpled
clothes and his confused demeanor, he has bad luck written all over
him. After being laid off from his eight-dollar-an-hour job as a
museum guard, he comes back to discuss it with the museum's director,
played as prim and proper by a nattily dressed Blythe Danner.
Blue-collar worker Sam, lacking confidence, makes a big mistake by
bringing along something to ensure that his ex-boss will pay him proper
attention. With a gun and a bag of dynamite, his attempts at
reasonable discussion rapidly get out of hand. His gun goes off
wounding his friend, the only other guard, and soon things go from bad
to worse -- but not for everyone.
Max Brackett, played to a tee by a pensive Dustin Hoffman, has
lost his position at the networks and has been relegated to the
television minor leagues. Sent by his boss, Lou Potts (Prosky), to do
a feel-good piece at the local museum, Max ends up being in the rest
room inside the museum when Sam finds himself with a wounded guard and
a dozen school children as accidental hostages. The situation soon
escalates as Max manipulates the scene into a live story with himself
at the center of the storm. Sounding like Rod Serling introducing a
"Twilight Zone" episode, Max intones his explanation of the crisis to
the rest of America.
"A man has been shot; a line has been crossed," proclaims Max.
The movie comes back again and again to the issue of crossed lines with
the implication that the warring reporters cross it repeatedly in an
attempt to improve their poll numbers. We flip back frequently to the
men behind the scenes at the network who check poll numbers on
everything from the newscasters' market share to Sam's popularity.
Old timer Lou thinks the story has gotten out of hand. "Jeez, I
sent you to cover a piece of fluff, and you come back with a hostage
situation," he complains to Max. Like a man in a futile attempt to
battle a hurricane, Lou relinquishes control and lets the media feeding
Chief Lemke's (Ted Levine) first question to Sam stumps him. The
chief wants to know Sam's demands. Max, in total control of the
situation, becomes Max's instant mentor. Max advises against asking
for the only thing Sam wants, his old job back. "You've got to ask for
a fast car, a Learjet or a Greyhound bus," Max tells him, otherwise
they will not take you seriously.
When the story gets big, the network anchor, Kevin Hollander,
shows up to try to muscle in on Max's story. "I'm who Americans trust
for their news," brags Kevin. "You really shouldn't let a marketing
slogan go your head," retorts Max. Alan Alda, who can do supercilious
with the best of them, plays Kevin. To further complicate matters,
Kevin was the source of Max's downfall from the networks after Max
embarrassed him in a live feed at a previous crisis. With Sam's poll
numbers headed for the moon, Kevin smells gold on earth, arguing that
"this guy's a poster child for the disenfranchised."
The supporting cast is strong with the best being Max's young
assistant Lori, played by a perky Mia Kirshner. When Kevin smiles at
her and she realizes this hostage crisis could launch her career, off
go her nerdy clothes and her hesitant manner. She starts dressing like
an anchor and gets ready to walk over her dead mother's grave if need
be to get the story.
Meanwhile, back at scene of the crime, Sam wiles away his time
playing Pied Piper with the kids as they raid the vending machines.
And when night falls, he tells them stories of the local Indian tribe.
The defining moment in the show comes in a request from the big
boys at the network. Could Max be so kind as to arrange for Sam to
surrender in prime time? Oh, and could it be Thursday night since that
is when their ratings need the most help?
MAD CITY runs 1:50. It is rated PG-13 for a few violent scenes, a
couple of profanities and mature themes. The show would be fine for
kids 10 and up although they probably need to be teenagers to be
interested in the movie. I recommend the film to you and give it ***
Copyright © 1997 Steve Rhodes