Hoffman, Travolta prove a perfect duo in Mad City

madcity Mad City (Warner) may be a film about hostages, but it does not make audience members feel like hostages.

Crisply-paced and cleverly-plotted, this contemporary thriller parallels the excitement of the journalist-as-opportunist theme in Billy Wilder’s The Big Carnival, also called Ace in the Hole (1951). Like Wilder’s noir-ish masterpiece, the new film is as cynical about reporters as a lot of reporters are about everything.

The reporter in question is Max Brackett (Dustin Hoffman, Outbreak), a wily, big-city type who works for a small-time California TV station. Most of the time, he covers snore-inducing stories like the big funding cut at the local natural history museum.

Max was a network newsman until a blow-up with a hotshot anchor put him out of a job. Itching for another swing at the big time, he stumbles on the story of his life at the museum.

A recently laid-off security guard happens to show up on the day Max is there to cover the fund-cutting story. Without quite meaning to, the disgruntled Sam Baily (John Travolta, Face Off) ends up making hostages of the reporter, the museum’s director and a bunch of children.

The ever-resourceful Max immediately begins to manipulate the situation. But is he trying to save the kids or hype the story? For director Costa Gavras and first-time screenwriter Tom Matthews, that is the question – or, rather, there is no question at all. With Max, the story always comes first.

Having played Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein, an icon of journalistic integrity, in All the President’s Men (1976), Hoffman seems to get a kick out of portraying a newsman with no visible moral code. Max quickly gets the upper hand with the confused, desperate Sam by offering him advice on how to turn the situation to his advantage.

Thanks partly to Max’s expert coaching – and despite the fact that children are being held at gunpoint – the public takes Sam’s side.

And with the endlessly endearing Travolta in the role, it is believable. Travolta has the look of the character down perfectly: The sad eyes, the rumpled clothes, the middle-aged spread, even the over long, too-pointy sideburns. He is the poster child for the evils of downsizing.

Hoffman and Travolta are a perfectly-matched team, the former brilliantly underplaying, the latter letting it all hang out. Hoffman’s careful, calculated performance also serves him well in his scenes with Alan Alda (“M*A*S*H”), who hilariously plays Max’s arch enemy, the hated network anchor.

Mad City does have an awkward plot point or two. It’s important, for example, for Sam to have explosives with him at the museum. But the reason that he has them never is explained adequately. And at times the cynical journalist bit is pushed so far that it insults one’s intelligence.

A scene in which Max edits an interview subject’s words to say the exact opposite of what the man meant is just stupid. It’s not that Max is above doing something like that. But in this particular case, he has any number of other interviews that make the point he needs for his story. Max may be extraordinarily arrogant, but he’s simply too savvy to needlessly falsify a quote.

As the world re-examines the role of the press in the wake of Princess Diana’s death, a movie like Mad City helps highlight some of the issues involved. This film will not do the media any good, but then, neither did The Big Carnival.

Mad City is now playing.

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