Published October 1, 1997
Mad City, directed by Costa-Gavras, has a good subject, but it can’t seem to stay focused on it. The director, known for such anti-American films as Z and Salvador, here ostensibly changes his subject to the media. Now I yield to no one in my dislike of the media, and especially of television newsmen, but I can’t escape the feeling that the bad guys who get the Costa-Gavras treatment in Mad City are getting a bit of a bum rap. This is a film in which the serious anti-media point gets lost, becoming merely a subset of the larger anti-Americanism which has been the preoccupation of Costa-Gavras’s career.
The two main media figures in this film are Max Brackett (Dustin Hoffman), a former network newsman now exiled to the provinces, and Kevin Hollander (Alan Alda), the bigfoot network anchor whose embarrassment on the air by Brackett some years before is what produced the exile—and a lasting enmity. One day in covering a routine story about cutbacks at the local museum of natural history, Brackett inadvertently walks into a “hostage situation.” One of the two museum security guards, Sam Baily (John Travolta), who has been laid off, comes in to talk to the proprietor, Miss Banks (Blythe Danner), and plead for his job, bringing with him a shotgun to get her attention.
When she attempts to brush him off he pulls out the shotgun. Meaning to shoot into the air, he accidentally wounds the other guard and then finds, after the police and emergency services arrive, that he must keep as his hostages the kids from an elementary school’s field trip at the museum. Brackett is in the men’s room at the time all this happens, and begins broadcasting live from a pay phone. After Sam finds him there, and brings him out, he becomes in effect poor, stupid, gullible Sam’s media adviser. “He wants to know what my demands are,” says Sam in bewilderment when he takes a call from the chief of police. Max then advises him what to ask for. He says what Max tells him to say and then turns to him like a little boy seeking approval: “How was that?” he says.
“Sounded good to me,” says Max.
It is a good idea, as I say, which does not quite work. The central character of Max is too incoherent. We do not see enough of him to understand the deep contradiction in his character between the cynical manipulator of media, willing to do anything for a story, and the old softie he was before (when he ridiculed Hollander on the air for asking about the body parts from an airplane crash) and after (when he takes Sam’s side against the network and so throws up his chance to return to network news). Likewise, Hollander is a one-dimensional bad guy, and that kind of shallow evil always looks weak and unconvincing on screen; Sam Baily has some good lines and is done proud by Travolta, but he is at bottom a mere sentimental gesture—too good to be true.
We see the same kind of unconvincing characterization with Max’s cute little assistant, Lorrie (Mia Kirshner) who, predictably enough, is transformed in the space of a couple of days under Max’s tutelage from a sweet young thing, wondering why he has told her to call the station’s remote unit before she calls the police, to a heartless monster. It is Max who says to Lorrie, who tried to help the wounded security guard: “You left the camera and went to help him. Why didn’t you take the camera if you were so humane?” Yet he is the one with the conscience and she the ruthless careerist in the end. How does that happen?
The question is never answered because Costa-Gavras is no more than superficially interested in these characters, or even in the lies and manipulations of the TV newspeople. Rather, it is the cover those lies give to the vicious, fascist, right-wing America, including the murderous thugs of the FBI and the motley crew of militiamen and white supremacists who rally to poor Sam Baily’s pathetic cause, which constitute the film’s real concern. What a surprise! This picture has its moments, but it finally collapses under the weight of the improbability that its hatred of America should be directed at the American media, which in fact would be more likely to share in that hatred.