Release Date(s)1997 (October 31, 2023)
Studio(s)Warner Bros. (Warner Archive Collection)
- Film/Program Grade: B-
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: D
Films about journalism and journalists have proven popular, with such pictures as Good Night, and Good Luck, The Post, Shattered Glass, All the President’s Men, and Network prime examples of the genre. Mad City focuses on the developing relationship between a television newsman and a hostage taker as tensions mount.
Brackett (Dustin Hoffman) is an aggressive reporter. To keep him in his place, the local network boss (Robert Prosky) assigns him to cover a softball story at a museum. While preparing himself in the men’s room for his interview with the museum’s curator, Mrs. Banks (Blythe Danner), Brackett spies a confrontation between her and a disgruntled former employee (John Travolta). She fired him from his job as a guard at the museum and he wants it back. To add gravity to his demand, he brandishes a loaded shotgun and a bag filled with dynamite.
Eventually, Brackett is discovered by the ex-employee and ordered out to join his hostages—Mrs. Banks, a group of school children, and their teacher. Speaking calmly, Brackett learns from the man that his name is Sam Bailey, and gathers that he’s not terribly bright. As they talk, Sam comes to trust Brackett and Brackett realizes he’s at the center of what can be a compelling, exclusive story. An accidental shooting complicates the situation and law enforcement and the media swoop in, escalating tension both inside and outside the museum.
Directed by Costa-Gavras (Z, The Music Box) Mad City is fast-paced and features the star power in Hoffman and Travolta, but often appears to be two movies squeezed into one. As a hostage thriller, it checks all the boxes, but the screenplay by Tom Matthews shifts attention away from the action in the museum to the politics and in-fighting of the network executives and personalities vying for who should get the bulk of the air time on this big ratings bonanza of a story. Sam himself doesn’t matter to them at all. He’s merely a means to those ratings. The national network anchor, Kevin Hollander (Alan Alda), is especially blatant in grabbing the spotlight from Brackett in the name of responsible journalism. The two newsmen have a tempestuous history.
The lead performances are troublesome. Hoffman understandably speaks in a low, comforting voice when he first tries to calm Sam down and establish trust. But his voice is so subdued that he’s barely audible, and he retains this delivery throughout the film, even when his character is addressing the cops, Hollander, and other newsmen. Speaking in just about a whisper, Hoffman underplays his entire performance, with so little variety that his Brackett comes off more as a programmed automaton than a compassionate human being.
Travolta overplays in his early scenes. Sam is deeply upset about losing his job, since he has a wife and two young children to support, and accosts Mrs. Banks, rifle in hand, thinking it’s the best way to get his job back. He’s a simple guy who acts impulsively, but initially Travolta charges into the film, playing Sam as a terrorist brute. Later, Travolta gets a better handle on the role. As hours turn into days, his Sam visibly develops a look of weariness and growing awareness of the gravity of his plight. He looks beaten, his face and posture a combination of confusion, regret, and exhaustion.
Blythe Danner is fine as Mrs. Banks but the role is problematic. Not only is Mrs. Banks the target of the overwrought Sam, she also has a class full of fourth-graders and their teacher in the building. Yet her reaction is fearless. The gun doesn’t faze her and she condescends to him, rather than engaging and trying to defuse a dangerous situation. And those school children are afterthoughts. In actuality, wouldn’t they be the major concern of all the adults involved? Wouldn’t their parents be terrified and kicking up a huge fuss with the police and the media? Only Sam seems to care about them. We only hear from one parent on a call-in to Larry King’s show. Why don’t we see a group of them gathered outside demanding action? The screenplay has conveniently avoided the obvious. It’s a shame the film doesn’t adhere more to what an actual hostage situation would be.
Understandably, the film wants the focus to be on the relationship between Brackett and Sam. Brackett first sees the situation as his way to the top, to redeem himself from past actions. Sam is the means. Brackett relishes the spotlight and figures, arrogantly, that he’s the key to ending the stand-off. But is he reporting the story or making himself a part of it? Brackett attempts to advance his career by manipulating Sam in order to control the story. Hoffman conveys a change in Brackett from ambition to disgust, as he sees how his involvement has in many ways worsened an already bad situation, but it seems abrupt.
Brackett is hardly a sympathetic character. We’re supposed to view Sam as a misguided innocent—a victim of his own rash actions. In their clawing desperation to beat the competition, Brackett’s network personalities engage in sniping, threatening, and using their power to shape how the story will be covered.
Mad City is reminiscent of Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (1951). In that picture, Kirk Douglas’ journalist stumbles across the story of a lifetime when he discovers a man trapped in a cave in the New Mexico desert. The trapped man becomes a pawn of the reporter as a media frenzy spirals out of control. Both films are predicated on a tense situation, but Mad City lacks the sense of time running out.
Mad City was shot by director of photography Patrick Glosser on 35 mm color film and presented in the aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The Blu-ray features a new 4K restoration of the film from the original camera negative. Overall quality is excellent, with sharp details. Warner Archive has maintained a high standard in their restorations of older films, and this one is no exception. Night exteriors look especially good, with crowds of people, police cars, and news vans well delineated. Lighting within the museum remains fairly constant, with sunlight coming through windows the only indication that it’s daylight.
The soundtrack is English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio. English SDH subtitles are an available option. Dialogue is mostly clear, but Dustin Hoffman speaks so softly that it’s often difficult to understand him. Travolta’s voice varies from highly strung to panicky to exhausted. Sound effects include gun shots, police and ambulance sirens, crowd noise, children running around, echoes in the entrance hall of the museum, and voices on telephones. Dialogue and ambient sound are well balanced. The score by Thomas Newman is effective in filling dead spots and never overwhelms the action, but is not especially distinctive.
The sole bonus extra on the PG-13 rated Blu-ray from the Warner Archive Collection is:
- Theatrical Trailer (2:25)
I wish Mad City were a better film. There’s a great deal of talent involved, including first-rate supporting performances by Robert Prosky as Brackett’s local news editor, William Atherton as the local anchor, and Mia Kirschner as a wide-eyed intern. But the film is predictable, with too many convenient oversights. The newsroom melodrama dilutes the story of the reporter and the hostage-taker inside the museum.
- Dennis Seuling