Mad City (review)

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It’s a Wonderful Hostage Crisis

I’m not sure what to make of Mad City. This media-gone-mad Costa-Gravas flick doesn’t go the satire route a la the later Wag the Dog — instead it tries more for parable but ends up so gosh-darn earnest that it falls flat.

Sam Baily (John Travolta) is an inarticulate, none-too-bright museum guard in a small California town. He’s been laid off by the museum head (Blythe Danner), and in an attempt to renegotiate his layoff, he returns to the museum to talk to his ex-boss. He brings a gun with him because he saw on TV that guns get attention. And ho boy, does it ever.

You see, Max Brackett (Dustin Hoffman), a local television-news reporter, happens to be in the museum, and he gets on a pay phone to call in an on-the-scene account of the hostage-taking (did I mention the group of schoolkids in the museum on a field trip?) to his studio, which goes out live. Brackett cozies up to Baily as the news vans congregate outside, manufacturing the escalation of the situation, even to the point of scripting Baily’s demands to the police. It all ends as it inevitably must.
I can’t decide which aspects of Mad City disturbed me the most. Take your pick:

1. Sam Baily is obviously meant to invoke that other ordinary guy driven to despair, It’s a Wonderful Life‘s George Bailey. Sam is just worrying about taking care of his family — he needs his job back. What loving father wouldn’t take a gun to speak to the boss when the stakes are so high? George at least only wanted to off himself — Sam swore he didn’t mean to hurt anyone, but he certainly came prepared.

2. The media — with Brackett at the wheel — tries to turn Baily into a kind of folk hero. Even worse, it works. The public loves Baily. Hell, we’ve all had bosses who treated us like crap — that’s the world’s reaction — Baily’s scoring one for the little guy. A party atmosphere develops outside the museum as townspeople gather to await the resolution of the hostage situation. And even more repulsive…

3. Only the bad guy has the temerity and evilness to suggest that this is a travesty. We know network news anchor Kevin Hollander (Alan Alda) is evil because we see a news clip in which he presses for all the gory details of a plane crash. When he suggests that it’s awful for an armed gunman holding children hostage to be deified, it falls on deaf ears.

4. Call me an intellectual snob, but Baily’s intense dumbness did not endear him to me. Baily is little more than a child — in fact, his wife tells Brackett that her husband calls himself “her third child.” Indeed, what grownup uses a gun as a negotiation tool? (Well, hmmm, the U.S. just did that with Iraq, didn’t it?) But we are reassured that Sam Baily is a good guy — he likes softball, after all.

5. Finally, Mad City falls into the handy trap of equating small towns with goodness and virtuousness and the big city with cynicism and callousness. Never mind that real life doesn’t comply to this simplistic dichotomy.

Oh, don’t thank me. It’s all in a day’s work for your cynical, heartless, big-city Flick Filosopher.

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