Sam works hard trying to provide for his family as a museum security guard. When cut backs terminate his employment, he makes a desperate plea to get his job back -- and to make sure his boss will listen, he brings a gun. The worlds of reality and media collide when this meeting is witnessed by Max Brackett (Dustin Hoffman), a prima donna news reporter who would sell his mother if it would make a great lead story in tonight's news.
Seeing this dangerous situation as a ratings bonanza, Brackett puts himself into the conflicting position of negotiator and exclusive reporter. With some silver tongued manipulation from Brackett, Sam finds himself taking the museum staff and an elementary school class hostage.
What makes Mad City more than just another "hostage of the week" episode, is the education that can be learned about what television news is becoming. I've worked in broadcast television for over two decades, and the media frenzy depicted in Mad City is based more on truth than fiction. Brackett's character is extreme, but today many reporters are driven to deliver heart stopping news from otherwise dull scenarios. A slow news day is a ratings disaster.
While Mad City ranks C+ for family appropriateness (it contains strong language, a violent situation, and brief sexual innuendo), for older teens and adults this film can lead to valuable discussions and discoveries. After viewing the movie, try examining real news stories to detect if any may be subject to journalistic manipulation or grandstanding. You may want to contact someone in your community who has been interviewed by local news media, to see if they felt the resulting story was accurate.
Finally, there is the recurring issue of Hollywood depicting reality. Over the last two months, about half of the films I have reviewed (including Mad City) have featured real-life CNN anchors, reporters, and commentators. If they don't want television news to lose what little credibility it has left, someone needs to say "no" to the next cameo offer from Hollywood, and get on with the story.