Mad City: Costa-Gavras Directs John Travolta and Dustin Hoffman

In theory, Mad City, Costa-Gavras’ new journalistic drama, features all the ingredients of his notable movies: a politically explosive situation, a socially relevant issue that lends itself to a vibrant cinema verite style, and major movie stars. In actuality, however, what unfolds onscreen is a simplistic and obvious expose about the manipulative power of the news media that by now is so familiar that its cynical perspective is not likely to upset or provoke any segment of the American public.

Even so, co-starring Dustin Hoffman and John Travolta, who boasts an almost unbeatable box-office record, this Warner late fall release should enjoy a reasonably robust opening and midrange numbers until it’s kicked out of the market by the season’s big guns.

Though scripter Tom Matthews, a former Hollywood publicist and print journalist, claims that he and his partner, Eric Williams, were inspired by the 1993 incident in Waco, Texas and its dubious press coverage, the real point of reference is Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (aka The Big Carnival), in which the young and dynamic Kirk Douglas gave a truly disturbing performance as an immoral journalist who exploits an innocent man buried in a ruin for a “human interest” story.

But Wilder’s film was made half a century ago (1951, to be precise), and since then there have been numerous American movies that disclosed the inner operations–and blatant unethical shenanigans–of the media, including Sidney Lumet’s Network and Dog Day Afternoon, Pakula’s All the President’s Men (in which Hoffman embodied ultra-ambitious, real-life newspaperman Bernstein), and most recently, Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers. In this skeptical and sardonic day and age, it’s hard to shock the audience with revelations about how the news media distort the reality they claim to record objectively.

Protagonist is Max Brackett (Hoffman), a bright, aggressive investigative reporter, known for always getting the story first. A bad incident on the air (which is presented in a flashback) with veteran anchor, Kevin Hollander (Alan Alda), in which the latter urged Max to be more graphic in describing the carnage of an airline crash, resulted in demoting Max to tracking down routine stories in Madeline, CA, far from the network and the fast track of the Big Apple.

Assigned to cover a story about the local Museum of Natural History, Max and his young idealistic intern, Laurie (Mia Kirshner), inadvertently become witnesses to what is at first a minor incident. Sam Baily (Travolta), an honest security guard, who had been fired due to budgetary cuts, comes to the museum to talk to its “heartless” director, Miss Banks (Blythe Danner). When she refuses to discuss the matter with him, Sam fires one shotgun, which accidentally hits (and eventually kills) his buddy, a black security guard. As often happens in such stories, the devastating event occurs when on a day the museum is visited by a class of young children.

Smelling a juicy story, Max, who’s in the men’s room while the shooting occurs, quickly gets on the phone to his supervisor (Robert Prosky) and a live coverage begins. Central drama revolves around the changing relationship between Max and Sam, who begin as opposites, but gradually bond and develop respect and even love for each other. Max instructs Sam what to say and not to say, what demands to make and so on, soon becoming a liaison between the pathetic man, who’s accused for holding innocent children hostage, and the outside world.

Mad City is quite effective in showing how a small incident in a dormant town gets bigger and bigger until it becomes a major issue on the national agenda. Indeed, due to the new electronic technologies–and the public’s insatiable thirst for sleazy and trivial “human interest” stories–within a matter of hours the entire country is glued to their TV sets, watching the around-the-clock reportage. Soon, the museum’s surrounding grounds become an amusement park, with vendors selling all kinds of commercial products related to the event.

Unfortunately, Matthews’ script in not only deja-vu, it’s also terribly schematic. Bearing some resemblance to the “Everyman” played by Michael Douglas in Falling Down (which was also produced by the Kopelsons), Sam is described as a hard-working, uneducated good ol’ American simpleton, a happily married man and responsible father whose only motivation is to regain his career. In fact, Sam is so ashamed for losing his job that he never tells his wife, continuing to wear his uniform and take his lunch to work day after day.

Placed on opposite poles of the social spectrum, Max begins as Sam’s nemesis, a successful and powerful professional, but when the two men get to know each other, they realize they share many values in common. Max turns out to be a cynic with a heart, though, predictably, it’s too late for this opportunist to stop the escalating lunacy once he realizes the disastrous effects of his action and seeks redemption.

Some dark, inside humor is inserted into the proceedings, as when Sam suggests that Mel Gibson play his part in the TV movie based on his life and Max turns back and says in a cool manner, “Gibson doesn’t do television!” And when Larry King interviews Sam on the air and Max interferes too much with his running commentary, the real-life host says, “excuse me, but this is my show.”

It’s hard not to notice the movieish, second-hand nature of the material, including the characters’ names. Travolta’s Sam Baily is borrowed from Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life. Hoffman’s first name, Max, derives from the butler Eric von Stroheim played in Sunset Boulevard, and his last, from Wilder’s frequent collaborator, Charles Brackett.

Though marred by several feeble scenes about the obsession with celebrities (that recall Hero, in which Hoffman also appeared) and tempo that’s often too slow, overall pic is proficiently directed by Costa-Gavras. Prosaic as it is, Mad City is easily watchable and intermittently enjoyable–it’s not as silly or preposterous as Hanna K., Betrayal, and The Music Box, the helmer’s contrived, femme-centered political melodramas.

The acting of the two stars is no more than adequate. Hoffman acquits himself honorably in a tense and intense part that’s not particularly challenging at this phase of his glorious career. It’s a testament to the script’s limitations, specifically its lack of shading and subtlety, that even a resourceful thesp like Travolta has hard time finding the right balance in his characterization. Like the film itself, the tone of his erratic performance changes from scene to scene, from sweet innocence to monstrous craziness, from cynicism to romanticism and back again.

A superlative ensemble, which includes Danner, Alda, Prosky and Kirshner, is also hampered by one-dimensional roles.