At wafflemovies.com, I will often review small independent movies that weren't blessed with the strong studio backing Universal, Warner Brothers, or Disney can offer. However, you can't call a movie starring John Travolta and Dustin Hoffman a small indie flick. Mad City falls into another category of hidden gems, movies that were over-hyped and couldn't live up to unfairly high expectations.
Mad City tackles a subject most Americans have become fascinated with, but also loathe; the media. Specifically, the movie addresses how the media drives the story rather than reports the news. Writer Tom Matthews and director Constantin Costas-Gavras examine the modern media, its drive to get the story at any costs, how regular people broker temporary media celebrity into careers, how celebrity changes their personality, the modern day lack of journalistic integrity, competition between news outlets and sacrifice of the truth for the sake of the story.
At the center of the story is Max Bracket. Dustin Hoffman brilliantly portrays this former network correspondent who has been reduced to working for a local affiliate in Madeline, California due to an ugly on-air dispute with the anchor of the evening news. Bracket desperately wants to escape Madeline and return to his former glory. Opportunity knocks when he is locked in the local natural history museum men's room as former security guard Sam Bailey (John Travolta) holds the curator and a dozen children hostage.
Bracket represents a belief that is prevalent among most journalists. I call it the Bob Woodward-syndrome. Those afflicted with the syndrome believe they can become major media celebrities by catching a break and covering one big story like Woodward and Bernstein did with the Watergate scandal. Hoffman is experienced with this type of reporter since he played Bernstein in All the President's Men, so he puts in a strong performance as Bracket senses his opportunity to befriend the slow-witted Sam and seize control of the situation.
Like many thrust into the media spotlight, Sam Bailey becomes a pawn of the media. Although he is a pawn, he also becomes taken with the chance to be a celebrity. Bracket spins Sam's story as successfully as the highest paid public relations consultant. Within hours, Sam has gone from being a felon to a loved and sympathetic public figure. Bracket tells Sam he could have his own fishing show, TV movie and book deal. He clearly does not have Sam's interest in mind. Bracket's eye is on a bigger prize, the chance to cover the story for the network.
Travolta does a commendable job of portraying Bailey as a sympathetic character. He is a former member of the Air Force who couldn't realize his goal of becoming a pilot due to the lack of a college education. He is a loving husband and father who can't summon up the courage to tell his wife, Jenny (Lucinda Jenny), that he has lost his job due to budget cuts, so he dresses for work everyday and goes to the movies.
Travolta is at his best when he plays the character as sympathetic and vulnerable. He does a wonderful job in the movie's closing scenes as Sam becomes desperate. However, his performance suffers when he tries to portray rage and madness. Sam Bailey is reminiscent of Michael Douglas' character in Falling Down; however, he just isn't believable when the character is outraged. This can be blamed equally on Travolta, who tries to reprise part of his character in White Man's Burden, and Mathews, who doesn't establish enough motivation for the character's outrage. His situation is believable, but the character is more of a dumb lug than a homicidal maniac.
The movie is blessed with a powerful supporting cast. Many of you will recognize Alan Alda playing CTN network news anchor Kevin Hollander. Hollander has a nose for the story and sees an opportunity to steal glory from Bracket, the man who embarrassed him on the air. Robert Prosky plays Lou Potts, news director for KXBD-Madeline. Potts is a news veteran who becomes disgusted with the entertainment program the evening news has become. Lucinda Jenny puts in a strong performance as Sam's loving wife and Ted Levine distinguishes himself as police Chief Alvin Lemke.
Mia Kirshner stands out as Laurie, an intern with stars in her eyes. She starts the movie as a naïve kid who helps a downed security guard rather than filming the action after he is shot. She learns her first lesson when Bracket tells her, "make a decision if you are going to be a part of the story or whether you are going to be there to record the story." Laurie quickly sees that her opportunity for stardom also has arrived, and she attacks the chance as ferociously as Bracket or Hollander. Like other journalists, she has fallen victim to the Woodward-syndrome.
The movie does a good job of describing the power of television and how it seduces Laurie, Sam and Bracket. It shows how regular everyday citizens become celebrities simply by appearing on television. People who don't know Sam are interviewed as his friends. His true friends sell their stories to tabloid news programs. Other players in the situation realize how they can benefit from the exposure they have received. Even the FBI engages in reverse spin by portraying Sam as a crazed lunatic who should be brought to justice by any means necessary.
In light of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, it's very popular to attack the media. Certainly, members of the media do not do a good job of defending their profession. Writer Mathews should be commended for avoiding the sanctimonious feel that many Hollywood interpretations of the modern media often take on. However, the movie drags in the middle, so I advise anyone who rents the movie to have faith. The movie has a strong climax and is a good rental.
Unfortunately, the movie was released in November of 1997. Movies released in early November tend not to do strong box office, so the October to early November season has become a dumping ground for lesser movies that have respected stars.
The movie represents Constantin Costas-Gavras' first directorial effort since 1989's Beloved and if you are a fan of his work or Hoffman's, you will be pleased with this effort. If you are fed up with the current state of journalism, this movie will only fan the flame of your discontent.
Writer: Tom Mathews
Director: Constantin Costas-Gravas
Sam Bailey .. John Travolta
Max Bracket Dustin Hoffman
Laurie ..Mia Kirshner
Kevin Hollander .. Alan Alda
Lou Potts Robert Prosky
Mrs. Banks . Blythe Danner
Cliff . Bill Nunn
Ted Levine .. Alvin Lemke
Jenny Bailey Lucinda Jenny
Copyright 1999 - Waffle Movies