"Mad City" might have seemed less ancillary had it not been released on the heels of the death of Diana and the worldwide scorn of tabloid journalists. Many would argue that this makes the film especially relevant, but a timely movie is like an after-school special. It teaches you a lesson, but its entertainment level is dangerously below normal standards (not that the normal standard of most movies are very high).
I watched the self-righteous piety of "Mad City" fatigued by a movie that is unaware of its own self-set paradox - it comes out zealously against the manipulation of facts, but "Mad City" pushes buttons itself with shortcuts and sentimentality.
Even the name of the protagonist, Sam Baily (John Travolta), sounds suspiciously similar to the "It's a Wonderful Life" character George Bailey. Sam has been fired by a stuffy curator of a small-town museum, Mrs. Banks (Blythe Danner), and returns, with shotgun and bag of dynamite, to convince her to rehire him to his position as janitor.
When Sam the militia man shows up, though, a group of children is visiting the museum and - here is the completely credible coincidence - news reporter Max Brackett (Dustin Hoffman) is in the bathroom freshening himself up after a lively interview with Mrs. Banks.
What ensues is not so much a concrete narrative as a scattershot allegory that says TV journalists are the cause for all our woes. Its central thesis that reporters defy truth to tell us what we want to hear does not work because it is too true.
How are we supposed to chastise members of the news media for putting positive spins on stories? If they did not do this, we would claim they were too grim and sensationalistic.
Besides, there already have been two great movies about the deceptive nature of television news. Both "Network" and "Broadcast News" were far more insightful, far more exciting than "Mad City" ever is.
There are a few moments of dramatic gravity, thanks to Hoffman and Travolta.
The actors cut through the mawkish script by Tom Matthews to attain a sense of equilibrium amidst the pandemonium that is Costa-Gavras' direction.
But Travolta seems miscast - he is much better playing glib or smug than he is miniature human emotions. And I still have not figured out why his character sported Elvis-style sideburns, except perhaps to serve as a way to further date the movie.
By the end "Mad City" starts to feel less like a study of the media and hostage situations, but a study of older movies that have studied the media and hostage situations.
The movie lacks any sense of place, any locus of reality, and its pacing is both lurching and anxious.
It also would lack a sense of humor if it were not for Hoffman, who invests Brackett with a kind of egotistical flippancy, always controlling an interview or situation with a deadpan directness.
The movie murders (martyrs) Hoffman's wit with the climax in which he is forced to become the voice of reason, when he is the one who created the chaos, along with, of course, the gun-toting Sam.
"Mad City" just may be the most underwhelming movie of the year.
My mind tires even thinking about it.
Jason is a senior at North Hagerstown High School.