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Mad City
Media Junkies: Dustin Hoffman and John Travolta concoct a cautionary tale about the mass media in 'Mad City.'

Veteran director Costa-Gavras talks about 'Mad City' and the art of political films

By Richard von Busack

WHERE IS MAD CITY? It does look a lot like San Jose. A press release explains that the new film Mad City, about a man who takes a museum hostage and ends up a media star, is not set in Madison, Wis., as was announced previously, but instead takes place in "a small town in north-central California." Every now and then, however, the Midwestern origin of the story peeks out: a statue of a Miwok is dressed like a Plains Indian, for instance. Locations aren't everything, but they aren't nothing, either.

Mad City's director, Costa-Gavras, is best known for Z, his 1969 thriller about the murder of the leader of a nuclear-disarmament movement in a country much like Greece. Few films of that era so perfectly captured the exhilaration, danger and paranoia of the great left-wing uprisings--or the right-wing reaction that followed. When Mimi Leder was preparing to make The Peacemaker, she claimed that she wanted it to be more like Costa-Gavras than Die Hard. Good taste, but bad luck.

Costa-Gavras, a Greek-Russian immigrant now living in Paris, is in the Bay Area stumping for Mad City. At 64, he looks like a liberal-arts professor at a good college. He explains that the changes in the script to accommodate the shift from Madison to San Jose were "very small. ... We changed the name, from Madison, Wis., to Madeline, Calif., to make it some kind of upstart city." Upstart?! Instead of launching into a stolen Groucho Marx routine, I let Costa-Gavras finish.

"John Travolta had to start another movie soon after we were filming," the director explains. "And we had to shoot John's first scenes inside the museum and then go outside for the later scenes. And with the possibility of shooting in the Midwest in November, we were afraid of bad weather. So we decided to stay in California."

Costa-Gavras rallied local people for the five-week shoot in St. James Square in downtown San Jose opposite the Olympic Club, which stands in for a small-town natural history museum. "The people in San Jose were really great because they were not really professional extras," he says. "They were people from the streets who were asked if they wanted to play in a movie. So they came from curiosity. I was surprised at how good they were."

John Travolta plays Sam, a half-bright security guard who takes the museum hostage to protest the loss of his job. When he barges in, however, he doesn't realize that the museum is full of visiting schoolchildren, turning what should have been a minor donnybrook into a national story. Dustin Hoffman co-stars as Max Brackett, a TV reporter lusting after the big time--having let his scruples wound his career years ago. Max finesses Sam, building him into a populist hero while increasing Sam's legal troubles. In the weakest part of the story, New York network affiliates--lead by the cobraesque Alan Alda--jet in to try to snatch the story away from Max.

The script is a too-simple morality drama about the ruthlessness of the media; underneath the film's supposed populism is a contempt for the masses who are stirred up by TV. Mad City's forbears include Billy Wilder's 1951 Ace in the Hole (a.k.a. The Big Carnival) and Sidney Lumet's 1975 Dog Day Afternoon. The script (by Tom Matthews) is a film-student's vision of a newsroom, complete with a kindly, moral old father figure named Lou (Robert Prosky), as in Grant, and some moments display the combination of nihilism and sentiment you expect from a student. The main question raised by the screenplay is "Let's see, USC or UCLA film school?"

Mad City is hardly the last word on journalistic irresponsibility--it's far too obvious, too pious. Still, Costa-Gavras has fashioned an invigorating and subversive dark comedy by having the kids in the museum actually enjoy the hostage situation; a lesser talent would have used frightened kids to wind up the suspense. The director's refusal to find silver linings and redemption through love gives the screenplay some weight.

THE FILM'S main selling point is the acting of Hoffman and Travolta, which has an improvisational freshness. Both stars often bear a pleading streak that can be a chore to watch, but in Mad City, they temper their forlornness. Rising up as a media monster before his creator, Travolta has the tartness you'd expect in a duel between two vintage stars.

Hoffman, of course, is renowned as a very demanding actor. "Dustin searches out every corner of the character, every psychological weakness or strength," Costa-Gavras explains. "So he comes from time to time with questions. I think it's better for a director if he has the right answers. You can always say, 'Dustin, that's enough. We'll do it this way,' and he will follow you, but he will be very unhappy. And you will see it. And you will feel it. So we had a great time because I like that kind of discussion. And the good thing with Dustin is that in the end, he lets the director decide, but only after having an explanation."

Travolta is somewhat easier to direct. "He's instinctive," Costa Gavras says. "Sometimes you get what you need immediately. They're such different people, Hoffman and Travolta, but they got together very close, very quickly. Travolta was never upset that I spent half an hour discussing something with Dustin."

COSTA-GAVRAS has studied the possibilities of the political action movie in State of Siege, Missing, Betrayed and (the best of the four) Music Box. The director grew up in Nazi-occupied Greece, and his films have always confronted the threat of fascism. So it seemed a natural segue to ask Costa-Gavras about political conditions in France. The National Front, a nativist political party there, is arguing for the exile of immigrants, some of whom have been in France for decades--and Costa-Gavras is an immigrant himself.

"It's a threat, not because they can come to power, unless a major accident happens in the next 10 to 15 years. It's a threat because it divides the French people. I'm convinced that they cannot come to power. There's no way."

What about the mayoral victories of the National Front in cities in the south of France? "That's very negative," he admits, "but at the same time it's also very positive. Because people--especially young people--can see that the right is not changing things, as they promised they would."

Costa-Gavras' filmmaking has always been informed by his attention to politics. At its best, in the scenes in which we witness the crisis building, Mad City expresses the same sense of spiraling social conflict seen in the justly famous riot scenes in Z.

"That was very difficult," Costa-Gavras recalls. "It took place in a country where there was no tradition of movies, Algeria. So it was quite difficult having to teach each one how to be an extra. It was a funny thing. The people who were the soldiers--who had the nice boots, the nice uniforms--started feeling like cops, and they started hitting their friends. I had to keep stopping them and say, You have to play it, not do it." And that is indeed what Costa-Gavras got on film: the look of a real riot, with the police turning their clubs on the demonstrators.

"They were hitting them," Costa-Gavras says. "It's a funny thing about human beings, how you tell them to do something and they do it. It explains why dictators are doing so well."

Mad City (PG-13; 110 min.), directed by Costa-Gavras, written by Tom Matthews, photographed by Patrick Blossier and starring Dustin Hoffman and John Travolta.

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From the Nov. 6-12, 1997 issue of Metro.

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