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Mad City

movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Mad City

Starring: John Travolta, Dustin Hoffman
Director: Constantin Costa-Gavras
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 114 Minutes
Release Date: November 1997
Genres: Drama, Suspense

*Also starring: Alan Alda, Mia Kirshner, Robert Prosky, Blythe Danner, Larry King

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1.  Steve Rhodes review follows movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review
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Review by Steve Rhodes
3 stars out of 4

There is a moment -- actually two -- when local television reporter Max Brackett could have put an end to the hostage crisis that ends up gripping the nation. Sam Baily, the none too bright, disgruntled employee has laid down his sawed-off shotgun. As Sam turns his back, Max has a brief opportunity to grab the weapon. As anxiety flashes across forehead, Max's eyes draw a bead on the shotgun, but his body stays frozen. His inaction guarantees the continuation of the story of his career.

Famous director Costa-Gavras has to date created a body of work with an underlying theme of tension and terror. From his Academy Award nominated direction of Z to his more recent efforts including MISSING and MUSIC BOX, his films have a hard-edge that leaves moviegoers squirming uneasily in their seats.

His most recent film, MAD CITY, represents a change of pace. Although the hostage situation might sound like his previous films, it isn't. The script by Tom Matthews, based on a story by Eric Williams and Matthews, stays firmly in the comedic range. Partly a commentary on media excesses and partly a black comedy, the script skirts a fine line between the two, which could be considered its major weakness. Had one or the other of them been more fully developed, it would have been a better movie. And in the latter case it would have been even more like BROADCAST NEWS, the show it most closely resembles. (Robert Prosky plays roughly the same part as a newsroom executive in both pictures.)

John Travolta, an actor with an increasingly wide acting range, plays Sam Baily. With Sam's sad sack look, his pot belly, his rumpled clothes and his confused demeanor, he has bad luck written all over him. After being laid off from his eight-dollar-an-hour job as a museum guard, he comes back to discuss it with the museum's director, played as prim and proper by a nattily dressed Blythe Danner.

Blue-collar worker Sam, lacking confidence, makes a big mistake by bringing along something to ensure that his ex-boss will pay him proper attention. With a gun and a bag of dynamite, his attempts at reasonable discussion rapidly get out of hand. His gun goes off wounding his friend, the only other guard, and soon things go from bad to worse -- but not for everyone.

Max Brackett, played to a tee by a pensive Dustin Hoffman, has lost his position at the networks and has been relegated to the television minor leagues. Sent by his boss, Lou Potts (Prosky), to do a feel-good piece at the local museum, Max ends up being in the rest room inside the museum when Sam finds himself with a wounded guard and a dozen school children as accidental hostages. The situation soon escalates as Max manipulates the scene into a live story with himself at the center of the storm. Sounding like Rod Serling introducing a "Twilight Zone" episode, Max intones his explanation of the crisis to the rest of America.

"A man has been shot; a line has been crossed," proclaims Max. The movie comes back again and again to the issue of crossed lines with the implication that the warring reporters cross it repeatedly in an attempt to improve their poll numbers. We flip back frequently to the men behind the scenes at the network who check poll numbers on everything from the newscasters' market share to Sam's popularity.

Old timer Lou thinks the story has gotten out of hand. "Jeez, I sent you to cover a piece of fluff, and you come back with a hostage situation," he complains to Max. Like a man in a futile attempt to battle a hurricane, Lou relinquishes control and lets the media feeding frenzy begin.

Chief Lemke's (Ted Levine) first question to Sam stumps him. The chief wants to know Sam's demands. Max, in total control of the situation, becomes Max's instant mentor. Max advises against asking for the only thing Sam wants, his old job back. "You've got to ask for a fast car, a Learjet or a Greyhound bus," Max tells him, otherwise they will not take you seriously.

When the story gets big, the network anchor, Kevin Hollander, shows up to try to muscle in on Max's story. "I'm who Americans trust for their news," brags Kevin. "You really shouldn't let a marketing slogan go your head," retorts Max. Alan Alda, who can do supercilious with the best of them, plays Kevin. To further complicate matters, Kevin was the source of Max's downfall from the networks after Max embarrassed him in a live feed at a previous crisis. With Sam's poll numbers headed for the moon, Kevin smells gold on earth, arguing that "this guy's a poster child for the disenfranchised."

The supporting cast is strong with the best being Max's young assistant Lori, played by a perky Mia Kirshner. When Kevin smiles at her and she realizes this hostage crisis could launch her career, off go her nerdy clothes and her hesitant manner. She starts dressing like an anchor and gets ready to walk over her dead mother's grave if need be to get the story.

Meanwhile, back at scene of the crime, Sam wiles away his time playing Pied Piper with the kids as they raid the vending machines. And when night falls, he tells them stories of the local Indian tribe.

The defining moment in the show comes in a request from the big boys at the network. Could Max be so kind as to arrange for Sam to surrender in prime time? Oh, and could it be Thursday night since that is when their ratings need the most help?

MAD CITY runs 1:50. It is rated PG-13 for a few violent scenes, a couple of profanities and mature themes. The show would be fine for kids 10 and up although they probably need to be teenagers to be interested in the movie. I recommend the film to you and give it ***

Copyright 1997 Steve Rhodes

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