Costa-Gavras | 110 mins | TV | 16:9 | USA / English | 12* / PG-13
Disgraced national TV journo Dustin Hoffman is slumming it on a local network, covering dull stories like something-or-other going on at the local museum… until a recently-fired security guard from said museum (John Travolta) turns up with a shotgun, accidentally shoots the other security guard, and takes a party of schoolchildren hostage. Suddenly Hoffman finds himself with the inside scoop — literally — as the eyes of the national news turn on the unfolding situation.
So Mad City proceeds with, essentially, a dual-pronged narrative: the hostage situation itself, and the tactics employed by the media when covering it. Unfortunately, it seems unsure of its own point or purpose thanks to a mismatched tone, with the fairly-straight hostage drama rubbing up against some very broad media satire. I think the latter is really what it wants to be, though if the filmmakers felt they were making a serious point about the behaviour of the media then some of the film’s wilder elements have other ideas. Plus, I don’t know how original “the media are part of the problem” was as a viewpoint in 1997, but, getting on for 20 years later, it’s become a played-out truism.
Despite such faults, the film is an absorbing enough whole. This is mainly thanks to a solid leading-man turn from Hoffman and, even more so, a surprisingly nuanced performance from Travolta. He plays against type as Sam, the nervous, naïve, childlike, and easily-manipulated hostage taker. It’s Travolta’s performance that makes Sam someone you care about, even if you don’t exactly root for him, so that the outcome — which, unusually for this kind of film, remains completely uncertain right until it’s happened — is something you’re fully invested in. There are many better-regarded films than this that don’t achieve that.
There are other films that satirise the media more humorously, and other films that expose their true nature more effectively, and still other films that feature more thrilling hostage situations. Mad City has a solid stab at its constituent elements, even if it winds up more average than remarkable. At least the worth-seeing performance from Travolta adds value.
* In 1997, the BBFC classified Mad City as 15 for cinema release. In 1998, it was again classified a 15 for video… but one week later, and one second shorter, it was a 12. Six months on from that, the ‘longer’ version was also classified 12… and two months on again, the ‘shorter’ version got a 12, again. It’s from the ’90s so explanations for this kerfuffle are in short supply, but it seems to hinge on one use of strong language. ^