The Media Takes a Beating

Mad City shows why so many people revile the media. But Billy Wilder said it all—and better—almost half a century ago.

Everyone hates the media. It's the convenient whipping boy for our TV-driven, couch-potato, celebrity culture. Even reporters can score points by publicly flagellating themselves for their journalistic excesses.

A few people attack the press for its knee-jerk, left-liberal bias. But most are sickened by its tabloid tendencies—the sensationalizing of newsworthy personalities and events and the consequent neglect of the larger, more complex issues that really matter. The most recent example was the hyped-up coverage of the British au pair convicted in Massachusetts of manslaughter. Tonya Harding, Hugh Grant, and Marv Albert are others whose media-drenched melodramas have cheapened our culture.

Because anti-press sentiments are so widespread, any movie that tackles the subject better have something original to say. Mad City captures the frenzy generated by one of these national media events with accuracy and wit, and its cast of characters is well drawn. But the filmmakers have little that's new to contribute to the discussion, and the story sags under the weight of its overly contrived plot.

The movie opens in Madeleine, Calif. with local TV newsman, Max Brackett (Dustin Hoffman), trying to corner a reluctant bank official accused of swindling thousands of seniors out of their savings. In Brackett's mind, his brash, aggressive manner is justified by the nature of the offense which his quarry is alleged to have committed. His editor, Lou Potts (Robert Prosky), believes he has moved the line that defines acceptable journalistic behavior too far and takes him off the story. This seems to be part of Brackett's career pattern. Once a national network reporter back in New York, he was relocated to the boondocks for similar offenses.

Brackett's new assignment looks dull—the budget cuts at the local National Museum of History. But luck seems to be on his side. Just after he's wrapped up his story, a recently fired $8-an-hour security guard, Sam Baily (John Travolta), shows up with an automatic weapon and a sack full of dynamite. He claims he only wants another chance to plead for his job back. The museum director, the aristocratic Mrs. Banks (Blythe Danner), dismisses him in a condescending manner.

The distraught Baily waves his weapon around to get her attention. By accident, it goes off, seriously wounding the black security guard who hadn't been fired. Events spin out of control, and Baily winds up holding the museum director and a group of visiting school children hostage.

Brackett immediately sees the situation's potential as a national story that could get him back on network news, and he manipulates Baily to make that happen. The sadsack security guard is in way over his head. He's an inept terrorist and a poor media spinmaster.

Brackett sees Baily as a symbol for all the frustrated workers who've been laid off for reasons that aren't their fault, and he influences the security guard's behavior to present that message. He's no longer just reporting the news. He's making it happen. He advises Baily on what to say and when to say it, creating an appealing image and educating him in the nuances of hostage-taking. At the same time Brackett makes sure he retains exclusive coverage of the story.

Acclaimed Greek director Costa-Gavras (Z and Missing) and screenwriters Tom Matthews and Eric Williams also show how the media can take over the national consciousness. Baily doesn't really comprehend the full impact of what's happening until he sees the coverage of his own crime on TV. Likewise, the police who've surrounded him don't understand the meaning of their actions until they watch themselves on the tube inside their squad cars.

Mad City's basic premise was ripped off from director Billy Wilder's 1951 classic, The Big Carnival (also known as Ace in the Hole). Its subject is the print media, not TV, but the moral issues are identical. Charles Tatum (Kirk Douglas), once a successful news reporter, has been exiled to Albuquerque, N.M. and is looking for a way to get back on top. He sees his chance in the story of a man named Leo trapped alive in a cave-in.

Although Leo could be rescued in less than 24 hours by shoring up the cave's weakened tunnels, Tatum persuades the authorities to use a lengthy drilling process that takes seven days. This gives the reporter time to turn the story into a national event. Leo dies before the rescuers can get to him, but Tatum has manipulated himself back into the big time.

Wilder pulls no punches, and his cynical vision seems more contemporary than Mad City's point of view. His scumbag reporter, Tatum, single-mindedly pursues his own ambitions regardless of the cost to everyone else.

Mad City's journalist, Brackett, is a marshmallow in comparison. During the course of the drama he undergoes a change of heart and bonds with the hostage-taker, Baily. Brackett comes to believe in the message he's trying to spin and fights the network brass to try and get it out.

But more importantly, The Big Carnival understands that the media aren't the only villains. The public is shown to be equally culpable. The trapped man's wife makes money selling refreshments to the crowd of visiting gawkers. When asked to pose praying in some news photos, she cracks, “I don't pray. Kneeling bags my nylons.”

Next to this, Mad City looks tame. Its ultimate bad guys are the yuppie network execs and the scheming anchor, Kevin Hollander (Alan Alda). The film presents the old story of corporate America exploiting the innocent public.

In the age of breast-beating over the O.J. Simpson trial and the excessive paparazzi coverage of Princess Di, a movie like Mad City must do more than point fingers at the press and big business. Its makers should have studied The Big Carnival more carefully and looked into the sensation-seeking hearts of those of us who consume the news.

John Prizer, the Register's Arts & Culture correspondent, is based in Los Angeles.

The USCC classification of Mad City is A-III, Adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13.