MAD CITY (1997) *** 1/4
Few people today are aware that the Cold War began right at the end of World War II, in Greece, as a civil war between Communist partisans and the Royalist regime.
Gavras's father was a modest government employee. He was suspected of leftist affiliations and suffered for it. The discrimination extended to the young Costas. Denied rights like a driving permit or entrance to Athens University, he went to Paris at age 16 or 17, studied literature at the Sorbonne, later film-making, then became assistant director to several major directors. His first film, a crime thriller, was a hit. In 1968, Gavras became a French citizen, made his third film, the multi-prized "Z" that was hailed as the first big, French political picture. There followed more, impressive political thrillers.
Gavras was on to a fresh film formula. He was the first to combine the vigorous, American style with European political sensibility. The movies were major successes, won great awards. All were taken from real events, each antagonized a different political regimes. "Z," on the assassination of a leftist Greek leader by the forces of the right, riled the military junta that was to rule Greece for seven years - even though the murder had preceded the colonels' putsch."The Confession" dealt with political kangaroo trials within Communist Czechoslovakia. It infuriated much of the Left. "State of Siege" set in Uruguay (but filmed in democratic Chile just before Allende's fall) took on the CIA and political torture. It displeased many in the USA. "Special Section"'s denouncing of French tribunals under the German Occupation, and French judges as toadying collaborators, made many French legal professionals see red.
Then began Gavras's US-period. "Missing" (Cannes festival top prize) dealt with mass slaughter, the killing of a young American in Pinochet's Chile, and the inanity of State Department representatives. "Hanna K" attempted a "rapprochement" between Arabs and Jews, was accused of being pro-Palestinian. It had a short life in American theaters. The flawed but gripping "Betrayed" denounced white supremacists was followed by "Music Box," on wartime criminals harbored in the USA.
The better Gavras films are fascinating. The man has no fixed or partisan ideology, yet the same strain runs through his movies: attacking the abuse of power of any sort. In "Mad City," that principle still applies, since the media, led by television, wield amazing influence and often abuse it for sensationalism, ratings and ego-boosting.
The story is one of headlines. Max Brackett (Hoffman) a star investigative TV reporter for the CTN network, had rubbed the wrong way the powerful, self-serving and jealous CTN star anchor Hollander (Alda), and had been exiled to an affiliate in a small California city. Max, chafing at the bit because his station's manager will not allow him to do big exposes without proofs, is sent to report on a local museum, now in financial straits. This turns into manna from Heaven for sensation-seeking Max. Now is his chance for a scoop that will put him back on top.
As he interviews museum director Mrs. Banks (Danner), the haughty scion of the founders, there bursts in Sam Baily (Travolta). He is a poor blue-collar slob who was dismissed as a guard. He is armed with a rifle and dynamite, not intending to use them, but for getting Mrs. Banks' attention and plead for reinstatement. The man is clearly slow-witted and, at least temporarily, highly deranged.
Accidentally, Sam discharges his gun and hits the remaining guard, Williams, who is black and was Sam's buddy. Totally confused and remorseful by events that got out of hand, Sam keeps hostage a bunch of visiting school kids, their teacher and Mrs. Banks. He treats them with friendliness. The crisis grows instantly into a media-circus with crowds, reporters, cops (and a headline-seeking police chief), firemen, flashing lights, street vendors...
Connoisseurs realize that "Mad City"'s writers knew Billy Wilder's "The Big Carnival," (1951), originally titled "Ace in the Hole." Kirk Douglas played an opportunistic big-city reporter who sees his chance at winning fame (the Ace) by exploiting cynically a man in New Mexico buried by a cave-in (in a Hole). The event becomes a media circus (the Carnival). Is it an accident that Dustin Hoffman is named Max Brackett? Wilder's longtime writer was Charles Brackett.
Other inspirations include "The Front Page" (remade as "His Girl Friday); "Dog Day Afternoon" where a robbery by Dustin Hoffman blows out of proportions; and various exposes of the TV business (e.g."Network").
The madness continues in broad yet believable lines. Press people, a la paparazzi, pursue Williams to his hospital bed or film him with from a scaffolding outside his window. A black reporter insinuates to Mrs.Williams that racism was involved. A bystander harangues the crowd on Waco, Ruby Ridge, and people (read "whites") losing jobs through racial quotas.
We've come a long way since "Z," where the press actually helped the Good Guys. Yet traces of decency remain. Max's initial reaction is only to exploit the incident, but soon he becomes the advisor-mentor of helpless Sam. He coaches, then interviews him on camera, trying to show the good, human side of the man. He also becomes his intermediary and, yes, his friend, as he walks a tightrope between getting the story and doing the best he can for Sam.
Played superbly and coolly by Hoffman, he is a canny, intelligent pro, knows the trade by heart, even anticipates the media's and the FBI's moves. Caught between several fires, he maneuvers very well --until, that is, slimy anchor Hollander shows up to steal the show. The two men's relationship and power struggles are convincingly depicted.
Inevitably, Gavras makes the movie "a l'americaine," with strokes bolder--and slicker perhaps--than in an European psychological thriller. This does not hurt, although Travolta is so well in control of his crazed sad sack characterization that it gets theatrical at times. The technical credits are very good. Photography is by Frenchman Patrick Blossier ("Vagabond," "Betrayed," "Music Box"). Editing is by Frenchwoman Francoise Bonnot who has often worked brilliantly with Gavras, starting with "Z" for which she received an Oscar. She also won the UK's BAFTA Award.
Then there's the character of Laurie (Kirshner), a pretty, young TV intern, who was delighted to be assigned to Max for the museum reportage. She looked at him so adoringly that to avoid entanglements he quipped "I'm gay." But soon starry-eyed Laurie symbolizes the future of TV. When Hollander appears, the sweet young thing ceases to be Max's Girl Friday and switches camps. By implication she would do anything to climb the ladder. There are no fealties in the business.