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Mad City

Starring Dustin Hoffman and John Travolta;
Mia Kirshner and Alan Alda
Screenplay by Tom Matthews
Directed by Costa-Gravas

IN SHORT: Serious (and good) movie time, folks.

We've seen the media run rampant all over the place in the last couple of years, whether it be Princess Di's death or the bombings at the Atlanta Olympics or hostage standoffs with militia groups. the tv shoots off its mouth even when there is nothing to say and then the move on to the next crisis, whatever it may be.

This is the story behind Costa-Gravas' Mad City, and the movie itself would be a great satire if you didn't feel familiar with the end product of the behind the scenes manipulation that plays out. That you do feel familiar means that you've been watching too much television.

At its heart, Mad City is a very simple story of two men, on two different economic levels, who have lost what made their lives meaningful. Max Brackett (Dustin Hoffman) is a former network investigative reporter who has been busted down to a local station because he wouldn't report a disaster story in graphic detail. Gruesome means ratings and ratings mean dollars and his failure to deliver has earned him the enmity of network anchor Kevin Hollander (Alan Alda).

Cranky can sympathize, having worked 5 year at NBC network, that the demotion from net to local station is the industry equivalent of death. Max tries to make his job more than his crusty news director (Robert Prosky) will allow, and his young-enough-to-be- his-daughter assistant (Mia Kirshner) follows him around like a puppy, starstruck.

On the other side of town lives Sam Bailey (John Travolta), an $8 an hour security guard at the local museum of natural history. Sam is laid off due to budget cuts and is too proud to tell his wife. He's got two small kids; mortgage payments; telephone bills; medical bills -- the usual nine yards. When the money runs out, there's nothing burning worse in his simple mind (and it is simple) than the image of his family living on the street in a box. When Sam confronts his boss, the patrician Mrs. Banks (Blythe Danner), he does so in the only way he thinks will get him her attention. With a shotgun.

Problem is, there are schoolkids in the museum, and Max is in the men's room (having just finished a live fluff piece). Max immediately thinks hostage situation, a big story and a return to the big time until the gun fires accidentally and the situation becomes much, much worse.

From that point on, Mad City is almost a two man show as Max tries to maintain his exclusive and Sam wonders how to get out of the mess he's in. All the while a television in the museum is carrying live reports of the situation. Jay Leno makes jokes, the street outside fills with television trucks and Hollander flies in from New York, determined not to let Max have the story.

Mad City gives us, once again, a masterful performance by John Travolta. His Sam is both sympathetic and pathetic. The audience laughs at him because he's just too slow to realize the dumb mistakes he's making, and feels for him 'cuz it's plain as his face that he's just doing the best he can. He wants to do better, but the safety net is gone and the cliff is looming.

Hoffman is solid, even as his control of the situation slips away. By the time all is said and done, you'll wonder who truly was more pathetic, Sam or Max.

On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price for Mad city, he would have paid . . .

$7.00

Travolta may find himself in the uncomfortable position of running against himself (for his performance in Face/Off) in the Oscar® race. We'll see.

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The Cranky Critic® is a Registered Trademark of, and his website is  Copyright © 1995  -  2014   by Chuck Schwartz. Articles by Paul Fischer are Copyright © 1999 - 2006 Paul Fischer. All images, unless otherwise noted, are property of,©, ®, their respective studios and are used by permission. All Rights Reserved. Not to be used or copied for any commercial purpose. Academy Award(s) and Oscar®(s) are registered trademarks and service marks of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.