'Mad City' a thrill for right reasons Review: Deft direction, acting and plotting are news worth reporting in tense media drama.

November 07, 1997|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

"Mad City," a media-savvy thriller starring Dustin Hoffman and John Travolta, doesn't live up to its hype, and that's a very good thing.

Heavily promoted as yet another jangly, supercharged melodrama of the ilk that assaults the senses almost as much as it offends the brain, "Mad City" turns out to be a surprisingly effective psychological drama.

Hoffman, as a television correspondent with a wiggly moral compass, has finally found a role suited to his signature focus and intensity. For his part, Travolta, whose delivery naturally runs to the thick and slurry, is perfectly cast as a naif of limited comprehension.

Filmed with clarity and unswerving visual logic by the veteran Greek director Constantin Costa-Gavras ("Z," "Missing"), "Mad City" is something of an anomaly: a quietly competent movie that engages its central issues -- friendship, ethics and the "tabloidization" of the electronic press -- with thoughtfulness and a minimum of overstatement.

Hoffman plays Max Brackett, a television reporter who has been relegated to the Siberia of Madeline, Calif., after incurring the wrath of Kevin Hollander (Alan Alda), a Dan Ratherish lead

anchor for a major network.

In the course of pursuing a humdrum puff piece about museum cutbacks in Madeline, Max -- who desperately wants to return to the big leagues -- happens on the story that could put him there. While in the men's room he spies Sam Baily (Travolta), a disgruntled ex-employee and victim of said cutbacks, who has arrived with a gun to persuade his former boss to re-hire him.

Whispering into a microphone on his lapel, Max heroically reports the story, which is given piquancy by the fact that a group of school kids happens to be in the museum when Sam lets loose. A hostage situation ensues, and it doesn't take long for the yellow dogs of the press to come barking. And with Max as Sam's spin doctor, acting coach and even conscience, events swiftly escalate into a tragic, all too familiar, Circus Maximus.

Ever since John Travolta's comeback in "Pulp Fiction," skeptics have been lying in wait for his inevitable fall, but it hasn't happened yet. Sam, with his Elvis sideburns and puppy fat, benefits greatly from Travolta's galumphing grace. He even manages to elicit some humor from the character, especially when he deals with his boss, played by Blythe Danner with patrician coolness. His inchoate fury at her patronizing sweetness, which he can only express in a series of wordless grimaces, is among the many things "Mad City" gets right.

Costa-Gavras sets the tense emotional clock of "Mad City" and winds it ever tighter (a taut opening scene of Max preparing to interview a subject makes him look like a sniper taking aim). And, in a welcome digression from the current trend of using head-spinning edits and ear-splitting music to create the impression of urgency, Costa-Gavras gets there the old-fashioned way: by allowing the characters to reveal themselves gradually, and even to change.

Initially, Max looks like just another oily attack dog, but it ain't necessarily so -- his motives are never so clear-cut. Sam turns out to have more than one side as well, including a troubled marriage that is portrayed with refreshing attention to nuance.

It's just this sort of subtlety that sets "Mad City" apart from so many movies that call themselves thrillers, from "Seven" right up "Kiss the Girls." Not only does it offer some sophisticated meditations on journalistic ethics, but the filmmakers also introduce some themes that aren't explored quite so often, such as the enfants terrible who run network news production (the brass looks to be fresh out of Exeter) and whether that might have something to do with the current impoverished state of the medium.

(Some false notes do find their way into "Mad City": T-shirt vendors and folk singers are one thing, but introducing acrobats and fire-eaters to the siege strains belief.)

Admittedly, "Mad City" isn't radical moviemaking -- this surely isn't the first time the issues of professional principles, personal loyalty, race, the militia movement, downsizing, sexual politics and criminal justice have found their way into popular entertainment. But rarely have they been knitted together with such intelligence.

More important, Costa-Gavras and his team connect them with artistic grace and good sense, against a backdrop from which lesser mortals would milk every explosive, grandstanding moment. (In the hands of his younger, MTV-trained colleagues, the kids would be used for all manner of exploitative manipulation; Costa-Gavras wisely makes their hyperactivity another stressor in the setup.)

When all is said and done, not a lot "happens" in "Mad City," which might be its greatest success. It's one of the few films about the venality, violence and excess of the media that

doesn't commit the sin it pretends to condemn.

Mad City'

Starring Dustin Hoffman, John Travolta, Alan Alda

Directed by Constantin Costa-Gavras

Rated PG-13 (depiction of a hostage situation, including violence and brief language)

Released by Warner Bros.

Sun score: ***

Pub Date: 11/07/97

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