Mad City

on November 07, 1997 by Melissa Morrison
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   Dustin Hoffman plays a figure familiar from any recent film that involves the television media: a limelight-sucking journalist who exploits the news rather than communicates it--an anti-Carl Bernstein. The resonance that Hoffman brings from that earlier portrayal of a reporter who brought down a president ("All the President's Men") in the quest for the full story, to that of Max Brackett, a journalist who brings down a hapless hostage-holder, Sam Baily (John Travolta), in a quest for a ratings coup, is "Mad City's" primary contribution to a subject ripe for puncturing. Costa-Gavras ("Z," "Missing"), the director known for sharp-edged political indictments, would seem the right man for the job. "Mad City," however, wavers between all-out satire and more middle-toned drama, each element undercutting the power of the other. Satire: The hostage children thrill to being tabloid TV stars. Drama: Childlike Sam connects with them by telling stories. Result: No real tension about the kids' fate.
   Brackett, a former network reporter serving time at a small station for the crime of humiliating a star anchor (a vicious, sweater-wearing Alan Alda), happens upon a great story when Sam, a recently fired museum security guard, shows up at the museum with a gun to reclaim his job. Max trades his image-manipulating expertise with Sam for an exclusive, and a star is born.
   Travolta's Sam is a family man with a low IQ and a good heart, who deteriorates during the siege, becoming simultaneously pathetic, sympathetic and scary. There are some sharp touches, particularly the opening sequence in which a news crew prepares their equipment the way an assassin prepares his, and the metamorphosis of a moon-faced intern (Mia Kirshner) into savvy and soulless network material. The movie's main elements, though, are more C-SPAN than CNN. Starring Dustin Hoffman and John Travolta. Directed by Costa-Gavras. Written by Tom Matthews. Produced by Arnold Kopelson and Anne Kopelson. A Warner release. Drama. Rated PG-13 for depiction of a hostage situation, including violence and brief language. Running time: 110 minutes
Tags: Dustin Hoffman, John Travolta, Alan Alda, Mia Kirshner, journalist, hostage, Costa-Gavras
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