Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Media Frenzy

By Susan Ellis

NOVEMBER 17, 1997:  n an interview published last week in the Flyer, Dustin Hoffman discusses the timeliness of his latest movie, Mad City, in reference to the situation surrounding Princess Diana's death. Comparing the two, however, is a disservice to Mad City. At best, it makes the picture's subject matter seem redundant. At worst, the reality of what led up to and what happened in the tunnel is far more chilling -- because of that very realness -- than what appears on screen.

When Mad City raises questions about media ethics, it does so in a more reasoned manner -- not in the frantic fingerpointing, celebrity-glutted way in which Diana's death was met. So truth is stranger than fiction, but Mad City scores points by presenting its message in a way that makes viewers really consider what is right and wrong and how their opinions are shaped by the media.

Hoffman plays Max Brackett, an arrogant TV reporter, whose previous, impulsive antics forced him from network news to a local affiliate. Anxious to return to the big leagues, Brackett ignores the advice of latest boss (to leave the hardcore investigative stuff to the network big boys) by insisting on exposing the dirt on a banker. For punishment, his boss sends Brackett out to do a puff piece on a museum. Once there, Brackett overlooks the exhibit and visiting schoolchildren in favor of asking the curator, Mrs. Banks (Blythe Danner), about the museum's layoffs. Brackett's piece is cut off by the show's anchor, who asks if those are dinosaurs behind him.

As luck would have it, Sam Baily (John Travolta), a just-fired security guard, enters the museum with a gun and a bag full of dynamite. Baily wants his job back, but it's Brackett who sees that this is his chance to get what he wants -- a juicy story.

After Baily accidentally shoots a guard, there's no going back. Brackett takes over and becomes, in essence, Baily's publicist. The release of one hostage, he negotiates with the police, means that Baily gets time on-air in an exclusive interview with Brackett. As this is playing out, Brackett's old nemesis, network anchor Kevin Hollander (Alan Alda), demands that he be sent on location to steal Brackett's thunder.

Directed by Constantin Costa-Gavras and written by Tom Matthews and Eric Williams, Mad City takes aim at television news. Targets it hits include the event graphics, in this case "Inside the Siege," and the "how do you feel?" questions to the victims. Further, it shows how reporters can be weasels. When a story's hot, it's the only game in town. The trick to scoring audiences is giving them a fresh angle. Brackett is the one holding the cards. His approach is to paint Baily -- through well-chosen interviews and editing -- in a sympathetic light. To gain Baily's cooperation, Brackett tells him that the viewing public is his jury pool. The only choice that the other stations and Hollander have is to poke holes in Brackett's work. None of them gives the whole story.

Hoffman gives a good performance as the scruffy Brackett -- a man so caught up in getting the story, doing a good job, that he can't see that his unwillingness to play along with the station's demands undermines everything he does. Travolta's thick-headed character (we know he's dumb because of his pointy sideburns) is ripe for manipulation. This isn't one of Travolta's flashier roles; he mostly hovers. But in this context, it works well, since, as Mad City demonstrates, the subject of the story often fades into background so that only the spectacle is news.

Eve's Bayou is the respectable first feature by writer/director Kasi Lemmons. It's set in a small swampy town in south Louisiana and narrated by the 10-year-old Eve (Jurnee Smollett), who tells us in the first few minutes that this is the summer that she killed her father.

It begins with a party at the home of Eve's parents, Roz (Lynn Whitfield) and Louis (Samuel L. Jackson). Sullen about the attention her mother pays to her little brother and father to her older sister, Eve takes refuge in an old carriage house, where she later witnesses her father carrying on with another woman. Eve's sister Cisely (Meagan Good) explains the incident away, but neither of the girls can ignore the late nights her father keeps or the whisperings among her mother and Aunt Mozelle (Debbi Morgan). When the pain caused by Louis' philandering gets too much to bear, Eve consults Elzora (Diahann Carroll), a white-faced voodoo practitioner, who takes the girl's $20 to make her wish that her father were dead come true.

There's a certain lushness to Eve's Bayou, created by Lemmons' able storytelling that is carried out well by the cast. Lemmons makes what Eve sees seem huge and heavy with meaning. And her imagination has a lot to work with. Her father, a doctor who has an irresistible charm and a knack for disarming volatile situations by changing the subject, is a hero. But he is flawed in an unforgivable way. Her mother is beautiful but remote to her because of her fears. Her Aunt Mozelle can see the future of others, yet can never predict that any man who marries her inevitably dies.

What Eve's Bayou captures is the power a parent's sins carry. It's the force that can destroy a child's innocence.

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