If ever a film was ripe for a remake, it's Billy Wilder's corrosive 1951 drama Ace in the Hole (aka The Big Carnival), with its prescient look at the public's greedy appetite for the sensational and the power of the press to manipulate the news. Media circuses like the O.J. Simpson murder trial and the Waco standoff make the Wilder film even more relevant today, and many of its plot elements have been recycled (without credit) for Mad City, an ambitious but muddled indictment of TV reporting in the '90s.
Dustin Hoffman stars in a variation on the role Kirk Douglas played in Ace, a disgraced journalist who exploits the plight of a desperate man to advance his own career. His name here is Max Brackett (a surname he shares with Wilder's early writing partner, Charles Brackett), a former network news reporter who, after an embarrassing flare-up on live TV, has been demoted to a local station in Madeline, California. Following an interview with the director of the city's museum of natural history (Blythe Danner), Max just happens to be in the men's room when recently fired museum guard Sam Baily (John Travolta) returns to confront his former boss, with a shotgun and a bag full of dynamite for extra emphasis. Sam fires the gun in anger and accidentally shoots a guard standing outside, instantly turning the situation into one hot, exclusive news story (complete with visiting schoolchildren held hostage). Max goes live on air, surreptitiously reporting from the men's room until Sam hears his eyewitness account on TV and (no pun intended) flushes him out. Sam, who seems to have the I.Q. of a flashlight bulb, needs help handling this volatile predicament, and the experienced Max is only too eager to offer his guidance and maximize the media drama. Under Max's tutelage, Sam pleads his case and is briefly perceived by the public as an economic victim deserving of forgiveness for a single moment of rashness. But satisfying fickle TV viewers is no easy task, as Max struggles to keep control of the story away from his bitter rival, ego-driven network news anchor Kevin Hollander (Alan Alda).
Screenwriter Tom Matthews neatly illustrates how today's technology can instantaneously turn a local incident into a national cause cl'bre, but his grasp of his main protagonists is less assured. 'I don't want to cross the line, I just want to move it a little,' Max tells the station manager (Robert Prosky), and, indeed, he has no qualms about manipulating the news by becoming Sam's Svengali; his initial impulse is so baldly unethical that his sudden attack of conscience in the third act rings false. (The same charge was leveled at Kirk Douglas' Chuck Tatum in Ace in the Hole, but Wilder managed to make his anti-hero's moral journey more convincing.) Similarly, Travolta's Sam wavers between sweetness and hair-trigger fury, stupidity and savvy. Travolta gives his character some amusingly quirky bursts of frustrated emotion, but this is basically a recycling of the same studied working-class-loser performance he offered in White Man's Burden-not the Travolta audiences pay to see. Also highly unconvincing is Mia Kirshner as Max's avid young apprentice, who goes from wide-eyed bimbo to accomplished network reporter, literally overnight. The most successful character here is Alda's Hollander, a network smoothie with all the warmth and generosity of a cobra. The former 'M*A*S*H' madcap has proved remarkably effective as a movie heavy, and he nearly steals the movie from his higher-profile co-stars with his wicked portrait of an unsinkable anchor.
Veteran director Costa-Gavras (Z, Missing, Music Box), whose films invariably deal in social and political issues, creates an impressively large canvas, with an overview of the entire media chain of command and nationwide reaction to the unfolding crisis. The crisp wide-screen photography by Patrick Blossier is well-suited to a drama involving so many disparate players and forces. The director, however, allows the momentum to ebb and flow, hindered by the script's wobbly character dynamics. Mad City has a fairly good view of the Big Picture, but its dramatic details never come into satisfying focus.