SURE, ACTING AND CAMERA WORK and dialogue and plot are all important. But most movies stand or fall on the presence or absence of something that's much bigger and much less tangible than any technique. Call it vision, call it commitment, call it sensibility, call it accidental collision with the Zeitgeist -- we've all seen poorly made movies that have it and well-made movies that don't. Kevin Smith's "Chasing Amy," to cite one recent example, was sloppy and undercooked, full of wrong turns and leaden, implausible speechifying, but it captured emotional lightning in a bottle.
Costa-Gavras' new "Mad City," on the other hand, is a well-made movie desperately lacking that crucial zowie. It's an earnest effort to recapture the mid-'70s media-critique buzz of "Network" and "Taxi Driver" -- a pretty good era, on the whole -- and it stars two of our most watchable screen actors. It has, at times, a loopy, edgy humor and moments of genuinely affecting pathos. But somehow the combination doesn't add up to anything. You can't say "Mad City" is a terrible movie, but it's a mediocre and disappointing one with a flavorless made-for-TV feeling. It will immediately bore large audiences (some of whom will pretend to like it because it's serious) and then be promptly exiled to video-store purgatory.
For starters, what in hell is the title supposed to mean? No one in the movie is mad, in any ordinary sense of the word, though almost everyone is bewildered or misdirected. And the central hostage-taking drama occurs in a fictional suburban California community, not a big city. "Confused Suburb" would certainly have made a more accurate title. I guess that wouldn't fly with the focus groups, though.
Actually, the title does convey a sense of the sententious moral purpose weighing down a movie that keeps struggling to break its didactic chains and become entertaining. Social commentary in Hollywood movies is often like salad at McDonald's -- it's done badly and it misses the point of the whole enterprise. Using a big-budget star vehicle to launch a diatribe against the Society of the Spectacle is well and truly pushing the hypocrisy envelope.
I came away from "Mad City" half believing that Tom Matthews' screenplay was meant as comedy and no one could bring themselves to tell Costa-Gavras -- never among the most subtle of filmmakers -- that he hadn't gotten the joke. Certainly the setup is a classic screwball coupling: Max Brackett (Dustin Hoffman), a slimebag TV newshound banished to a two-bit station in the California boondocks, stumbles onto the story of his career when Sam Baily (John Travolta), a fired security guard with a shotgun and a bag of dynamite, arrives at the natural history museum where Max is covering a story on budget cuts.
Max is a thrice-divorced media lifer who talks to his dick in the bathroom, assessing its level of interest in his nubile intern (Mia Kirshner, who glows irritatingly throughout). Sam is a hapless, beefy innocent -- Travolta has unstintingly applied the cannoli for this role -- who hasn't even told his wife he was fired days ago. Despite all the weaponry, he claims he never meant to take hostages or hurt anyone. "I seen on TV shows where if you flash a gun you get some attention," he mumbles. Sam only begins to grasp that he's at the center of an incipient media circus after he flips on the TV and discovers that a special bulletin is being broadcast from inside the museum: Max is huddled in the men's room (he spends a lot of time in there), milking the crisis for all it's worth. "Look at this," Sam moans. "I'm never gonna get my job back now!" Even the posse of schoolkids Sam half-accidentally takes hostage are hipper than he is. One murmurs to another, "I hope we get to see some shootings!"
Naturally enough, they do. As the crisis builds, Sam accidentally plugs his fellow museum guard, a black man named Cliff. Like so many calculating Hoffman characters, Max knows how to play the angles, and he understands that Sam's story now has both a political and a racial subtext. He also sees an opportunity to turn his big story into full-on career redemption. Gesturing at the crowds gathering outside the museum, he tells Sam, "You got a problem right now. Those people hate your guts. That's your jury pool." When Sam protests, "I'm famous -- but in a bad way!" Max is ready with cynical reassurance: "It doesn't matter on television."
While Sam feeds his pint-sized detainees from the candy machine and tells them campfire stories, Max stage-manages the entire drama, scripting everything Sam says to the authorities. Sam's one demand? You guessed it -- a live, coast-to-coast interview with Max Brackett (meticulously rehearsed, of course). When he isn't packaging Sam as an economically dislocated Everyman who just wants to go home to his wife and forget the whole thing, Max periodically emerges from the museum to strut for competitors' cameras, promise the police chief favorable face-time and check on the network offers rolling in from New York.
Costa-Gavras and Matthews' unfolding of the saga is occasionally acute -- the initial pro-Sam populist surge is countered by a rapper-led African-American pro-Cliff backlash, met in turn by a far-right effort to cast Sam as a "victim" of affirmative action -- but much of the movie feels sluggish and oddly uncontemporary, as though the script had languished in some executive's file cabinet for 20 years. By the time Alan Alda arrives on the scene, playing an unctuous Peter Jennings-esque anchorman who smirks, "I'm the man America trusts for news," we're way out in front of the plot. Sam has by now acquired some of Max's savvy, Max has taken on some of Sam's humanity, and they're both ready to be ground up and spat out by the media's satanic mill.
I can't think of a single Costa-Gavras film, going back to "Z" and "State of Siege," that has handled ambiguity well; his is a world of black and white, and black masquerading as white. His caricatured understanding of the American media in "Mad City" is a lot less sophisticated (and nefarious) than the real thing. Hoffman's Machiavellian journalist, finally forced to engage his moral bottom line, is a fungus-covered stereotype, and even an actor as good as he is can't rescue it. It's scarier, in fact, to reflect that most TV journalists actually believe in what they do. Similarly, although Travolta gives an admirable, intensely physical, big-baby performance as Sam is led to the slaughter, his character would have looked implausibly naive in a '30s movie. In an era when every viewer of "Entertainment Tonight" sees himself as a media insider, is anyone left in America who isn't ready for his close-up -- or who doesn't know how hostage dramas end?