The filmabout a security guard who takes a museum hostage to retrieve his job, stirring a media frenzy in the process, lacks credibility as an indictment of journalism.
The terrifically frustrating irony of "Mad City" is this: What the film's fictional news execs argue is "good television" actually ends up making only "average film."
"Mad City," which is really two stories in one, fails equally as the maudlin tale of downsized security guard Sam Baily (John Travolta) and an indictment of modern TV journalism through the sleazily ambitious reporter Max Brackett (Dustin Hoffman).
Director Costa-Gavras, of "Z" and "Missing," throws "White Man's Burden," "Dog Day Afternoon" and "Ace in the Hole" in the pot. Out comes a routine, tasteless stew.
Here's the gist. Brackett, who several years before was snubbed by arrogant network anchor Kevin Hollander (Alan Alda), is wasting away in a midsize California town and covering blah stories that drive him batty.
But while covering a museum-needs-funding bit, Brackett meets his meal ticket. Armed with a shotgun and dynamite, Baily has come back to intimidate the museum's proprietor (Blythe Danner), who had to fire him.
Baily doesn't count on Brackett, or the gaggle of clean-cut, all-American school kids and their teacher, whom he must also now hold hostage.
Then Baily accidentally shoots his guard pal, gets manipulated by Brackett and soon becomes the latest miniseries fodder after refusing to let the children go.
But Baily's life is a mere sideshow in this circus.
The real target is those callow journalists, namely Brackett, who will do anything -- even needlessly perpetuate Baily's holdout -- to get The Story. In order to succeed, especially in television news, journalists apparently have to be unscrupulous to the point where they will risk the lives of, literally, women and children to grab the career-saving package.
Have a couple of chances to pick up gunman Baily's shotgun? Don't bother. You wouldn't want the story to be adversely affected, would you?
By my count, Brackett faces at least four crises that challenge his ethics. He has them, he loses them, he abuses them horribly, then finally gets them back. By then, of course, it must be too late, right?
Here's my problem: I don't really know journalists like this. Of course, I work for a newspaper. But my brother, who has worked in both radio and television and covered everything from the farm report in Garden City to major court trials in Portland, Ore., has probably met only a handful of people who even scratch this guy's surface.
From what I know, television networks and affiliates are working overtime to make sure their reporters are fair and balanced in their coverage. After recent cowing to the "Soft Copy" and "American Spurnal" viewers, networks are once again realizing that the only way to truly compete with the news magazine tripe is to portray decency and objectivity.
Reporters and editors who ascend to network heights are ambitious, driven and aggressive, to be certain. But they are also professional and, for the most part, moral.
The common scuzballs who can barely muster even situational ethics green light stuff like this: "Let's put that guy in the Santa Claus suit on the air as a bona fide source to talk about JonBenet Ramsey at her family's Christmas party." No joke.
News magazines and network news shows are not the same thing. Some, like director Costas-Gravas, apparently believe they are. The cast and direction are sound, but as an indictment of journalism, "Mad City" lacks credibility.
-- Matt Gowen is a reporter for the Journal-World. The Mag's phone message number is 832-7146. Send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.