Opened: November 7, 1997 | Rated: PG-13
"Mad City" isn't as interested in telling a story as it is in making a point, and director Costa-Gavras goes to the very edge of believability to drive that point home.
The point is this: journalism is galloping out of control and somebody is going to get hurt.
The story it's wrapped in is the heavy-handed tale of an ambitious reporter, played by Dustin Hoffman, who finds himself on the inside of a hostage stand-off and proceeds to manipulate the situation to his professional advantage.
He coaches the gunman, played by John Travolta as a sympathetic, recently laid-off museum guard. He books interviews on "Larry King Live." He milks the story until we hate him, then has a last-reel crisis of conscience that we're supposed to accept as deliverance.
Costa-Gavras ("Z," "Betrayed," "The Music Box") has a passion for making social-political statements that in "Mad City" overwhelms his plausibility gauge, leaving the film teeming with problems.
Travolta plays Sam Baily, a security guard who has returned to the natural history museum in a small California town to demand his job back. Conflicted and desperate, when he is rebuffed by the curator he pulls a shotgun and takes her captive along with an elementary school class on a field trip.
Max Brackett (Hoffman) happens to be there and begins broadcasting live, with an wide-eyed teenage intern (Mia Kershner) holding down the technical side of things in the news van.
Under Max's direction, the hostage situation erupts into a national news event, inspiring all kinds of exaggerated reaction.
The network anchor (Alan Alda) flies in from New York. The park across the street from the museum becomes a circus, complete with T-shirt vendors and hippies coining folk songs about poor, confused Sam. And silliest of all, the innocent intern begins down the seductive road of media corruption, conducting interviews with the school kids' parents and editing video for the network, as if Max's TV station didn't have any other reporters or techies in their employ.
The script, by ex-20th Century Fox publicist Tom Matthews, is impassioned and heavy with effectively jarring emotions. But too many characters and too many turns of plot are transparent set-ups for Costa-Gavras to climb on his soap box and shake a finger at the media and people who watch too much tabloid TV.
Meanwhile, Travolta and Hoffman compete virtually unchecked for the Most Intense Award.
Travolta puts on his best basset hound eyes and plays much the same character he played in "White Man's Burden" -- the put-upon, working class family man.
Hoffman's reporter is a huckster with his eye on a network job. He's supposed to be sympathetic to a degree, but it's hard to see his side of anything when he passes up numerous opportunities to end the crisis peacefully and be a hero.
"Mad City" makes a valid argument about the pathetic state of television "news," but it lacks even a suggestion of subtlety. The audience is not so dumb as to need to see the intern become a vulture and Max beg forgiveness before we get message.
The self-indulgent tone, favoring this message over plausibility, leaves the film with more memorable "yeah, right" moments than anything else.