A hostage crisis becomes a prime time media event.
"We may be talking Oscars," announced producer Arnold Kopelson of this absorbing hostage drama way back in 1996. Two years, a cluster of damning reviews and a disastrous US box office take later Mad City arrives on our shores with nothing. And yet we could have been talking Oscars because, for all its pitfalls, it tries desperately to expose the lies and hypocrisy used by the media to boost ratings. Too bad the film ends up pulling the same tricks.
The plot concerns a dim-witted security guard (Travolta) who, when fired from his post, gets his gun and takes hostage a group of children in the museum where he once worked. The police move in but the crisis snowballs when ambitious TV reporter (Hoffman), hiding in the museum toilets, exploits the situation for his own airtime.
It's your basic Dog Day Afternoon hostage scenario (complete with absent-minded gunman) mixed with the media frenzy of Ace In The Hole and the ratings war of Network. Mad City comes into its own, though, when Travolta is being seduced by the newsflash suggestions of Hoffman, quite brilliant as the conscience-riddled reporter. As the blue-collar everyman, Travolta is less convincing, though his wordless dialogue - nervous ticks, raging snorts and flapping hands - is mesmerising.
The movie's basic tenet - that the media covers its own side of the story - is well broadcast by director Costa-Gravas, clearly enjoying himself in the role of moral ringmaster. And the script, by ex-journo Tom Matthews, ripples with newsroom details and crisp one-liners from ruthless TV anchor Alan Alda, in his best role for years.
In trying to be honest and non-conformist, Mad City does the most dishonest thing imaginable: it conforms to Hollywood routine. Consciences are found, martyrs are made and bad guys turn good. In other words, perfect prime time.