It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
“Mad City” arrives with the last thing a movie about journalism needs--last year's news. It's about the media feeding frenzy that erupts when a museum guard takes hostages. A TV newsman is one of them, the news channels carry the story around the clock, the museum is ringed with cops and cameras, and we get lots of scenes showing the vanity and hypocrisy of anchormen. This is not news.
It's time to admit the obvious: The public enjoys sensational journalism, and the media are only giving them what they demand. The recent “Roby Ridge” standoff in Downstate Illinois was thoroughly relished by the public, even while it was blaming “the media” for prolonging it. People who say they deplore paparazzi journalism are approximately as sincere as smokers who lecture you on how bad their habit is.
“Mad City” might have been more fun if it had added that extra spin--if it had attacked the audience as well as the perpetrators. As it is, it's too predictable: A media circus springs up when the museum guard, a likable everyman played by John Travolta, creates a hostage crisis and finds himself bonding with a TV newsman (Dustin Hoffman). The movie is obviously inspired by “Ace in the Hole,” the knife-edged 1951 satire from Billy Wilder, about a man trapped in a cave and the broken-down newsman (Kirk Douglas) who spins out the crisis to rescue his own career. But while Wilder's movie was smart and ironic, “Mad City” is dumbed down into a roundup of the usual suspects: the old-fashioned news director, the egotistical network star, the young intern on the make, etc. Costa-Gavras, who directed the film, should have remembered that satire depends on exaggeration, not attack.
As the film opens, Hoffman is at the museum to cover a story when Travolta walks in and demands a hearing with his boss (Blythe Danner). He's been fired from his low-wage job, and wants it back. The guard is not too bright, and has brought along a duffel bag containing a shotgun and sticks of dynamite--to get her attention, he says. Soon he has inadvertently taken a group of children hostage, and accidentally shot his best friend, another guard. He's having the kind of day Jim Carrey might have scripted.