One of my little-known cult favorites is a film from the late 90s called Mad City. In it Dustin Hoffman plays a news reporter who, when he pretty much falls into a hostage situation, quickly begins manipulating the players involved in the story to extend it, and his coverage of it, as long as possible, milking it for all it’s worth. I found it a scathing and disgruntlingly appropriate expose on news and journalism, and how ratings (i.e. money) are always put above everything else, from journalistic integrity to the actual facts of the story to the well being of the people being reported on. I didn’t know it at the time I first saw it, but it was actually inspired by an older film called Ace in the Hole (sometimes seen under the renamed title The Big Carnival). Directed by Billy Wilder, who was coming off the success of Sunset Blvd, this film almost did his career in; it was his first major critical and commercial flop, and only in the last decade or so have critics come to appreciate what Wilder called, up to that point, “the best film I’ve ever made”.
Kirk Douglas stars as Chuck Tatum, a sleazy, disreputable newspaper reporter who’s been fired from every paper between New York City and New Mexico, where he’s managed to hoodwink himself a job at a low-level paper in Albuquerque. Sent on assignment, he finds out about a local man, Leo Minosa, who is trapped in a cave-in. Sensing opportunity, he quickly establishes himself as the man on the inside with Minosa, with exclusive rights to the story, and, with the help of an even less honorable sheriff, convinces the extraction team to take a less risky but much more prolonged rescue method, in order to get every ounce out of the burgeoning media sensation as he possibly can. The technicals here are just about average; not too bad, but nothing overly noteworthy. I’ve found this to be a recurring theme with Billy Wilder’s films; the technicals are well done, but not anything showy. The real draw in a Wilder film is the story and the script, which are rock solid as usual. It’s what the film has to say about the media that is the primary draw here, and is most likely largely responsible for the film’s less-than-lukewarm reception upon initial release; it’s like making a bunch of black jokes in an NAACP meeting.
Parallels with Mad City aside, this was quite an enjoyable flick. I don’t know if I’d go so far as to call it a must see, but I wasn’t disappointed. If anything, I was left with too little to say about this one. It’s pretty scathing, but nevertheless entertaining, and certainly a film that was worth the effort to make it, as well as from us to watch it. It might’ve just been the combination of filmmakers and stars that got this on the list to begin with, but I’m pretty pleased to have seen it regardless, and hopefully you will be too.
Arbitrary Rating: 8/10