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Salt Lake City Weekly Trial by Media

"Mad City" focuses on TV journalism and the manipulation of news.

By Mary Dickson

NOVEMBER 10, 1997:  The last film favorable to the news media was All the President's Men, set in the good old days of honorable journalistic intention. Today, it's more about show business, entertainment and appealing to the lowest common denominator.

It's an unsavory business and that comes across loud and clear in films like To Die For and, most recently, Mad City. If you're mad as hell at modern media, Costa-Gavras' shrewd film about the media manipulating the message will fuel your loathing. While several of the details are exaggerated, they have the sting of truth.

What Costa-Gavras examines is the dark underbelly of a broadcast medium drunk on its own power and so relentless in its pursuit of a rating point and a scoop that it crosses the invisible line separating the ethical from the questionable. The picture Costa-Gavras paints is a very disheartening one.

As Mad City opens, Costa-Gavras moves in tight for close-ups of cameras that could be guns, and for all the damage they do, they might as well be. When Dustin Hoffman's shell-shocked character can only mumble at the film's conclusion, "We killed him," a lot of people will be thinking of the paparazzi and Princess Diana. As Costa-Gavras so soberly suggests, the media and the insatiable appetite of the public to which it panders are out of control. He offers a chilling portrait of a medium that has little regard for the people whom it propels into the limelight and just as quickly abandons.

In Costa-Gavras' film, which takes its cue from Billy Wilder's 1951 Ace in the Hole about an ambitious reporter who keeps a man in a collapsed cave until he can get everything he wants for his story, Hoffman plays a TV reporter covering a routine story on museum budget cuts only to find himself in the middle of a hostage crisis. A disgruntled museum guard, recently laid off, has come to talk his boss into reinstating him. "I thought a gun would make her listen. I seen on TV shows where people flash guns and get some attention. No one listens to people like me."

When he accidentally shoots the guard who wasn't laid off, events mushroom out of his control. In a state of confusion, he ends up taking a group of visiting school children hostage. Like Wilder's reporter, Hoffman intends to make his career on his live coverage of the crisis, which he ends up not merely reporting, but shaping and controlling.

While expertly portraying the tense stand-off between the hostage taker and the police, Costa-Gavras concentrates primarily on developing characters. John Travolta gives a sympathetic performance as Sam Baily, a none-too-bright blue collar worker who only wants to take care of his family. His sole demand: "I want my job back."

That paycheck is all that stands between his family and life in a cardboard box on the street. He's scared, he's frustrated, he's desperate, and as Max so cannily understands, he's good television. He's just an ordinary guy who lost his job and popped his top. With Max's coaching, Sam goes live to tell his story and build public support. Public opinion, Max reminds him, "it's a powerful force."

And so Max begins spinning this story. With all the savvy of a political adviser, he prompts Sam what to tell the police, what to say to the camera, and how to get those people on his side. And Sam's story, simply told on camera in his own words, can't help but move anyone who hears it. It's genuinely touching. "I'm sorry, I couldn't be sorrier and I just want to go home OK. That's my demand."

Mad City
Media madness: Dustin Hoffman and John Travolta in Mad City
Directed by
Dustin Hoffman
John Travolta

But rather than help bring this crisis to a close, Max becomes the self-appointed orchestrator, negotiator and adviser. It would be easy to dismiss Hoffman's character as despicable, but Costa-Gavras lets circumstances open Max's eyes. When the network sends their bigwig anchor (Alan Alda) in to take over the story, Max begins to see how the spinning can work both ways. Alda wants to turn the public against Sam so the police can end this crisis and he can get the scoop. It's an ugly thing Max sees and he sees that he's as much a part of it as his despised network foe. "Public opinion." as Max reminds Sam, "Is a fickle thing."

And how quickly it turns. The Police and FBI are eager to move in, but not until they can shift public opinion to their side. "They'll get bored or turn," the agent says. And when a jittery Sam, plugged full of amphetamines to stay awake, angrily shoots out the window, Max chides him with "You start shooting out the window, your image is right down the drain."

The hungry hordes of reporters descend, creating a circus atmosphere. The black media tries to spin the shooting as race-related (the injured security guard was black), while the white media find fringe neo-nazis to comment.

They don't care about Sam, the kids or the parents. In one of the film's most biting scenes, Alan Alda is sharing the camera with Max years earlier to report live on an airplane crash. "Were they mutilated or mangled?" he stupidly asks Max. "They fell out of the sky!" Max cries in disbelief before breaking down. "You want body parts? I'll go find a body part. You want a leg? An arm? Their families are watching this." Max, it turns out, does have a conscience.

It's getting harder and harder for film portrayals to vilify or satirize the media, because the reality is as strange as any fiction. The film takes as many jabs at the media age as at the media, itself. The children being held hostage aren't frightened. They think they're in the middle of an adventure. When they see themselves on television, they're thrilled. They wave at the camera, jumping up and down, wanting a bigger TV to watch themselves on the screen. They've become the event. The coverage has made them all stars for the day.

"You'll have the most famous museum in America," Max tells the museum director. "Sam Baily makes you the most famous cop in America," he tells a police chief, adding, "You look good in those sunglasses." They all want to be part of the media they themselves thrive on. Sam wistfully talks about getting his own fishing show one day, but realizes he'd never get hired. "You're famous," Max humors him. "I'm famous in a bad way." "It doesn't make any difference on television," Max assures him.

And that is the most disheartening indictment of the medium and those who watch it. On television, it doesn't matter.

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