Rated PG-13 - Running time: 1:54 - Released 11/7/97

"Downsizing" is a relatively new term in the late 20th century, and this movie is about the kind of frustration that can result from it. But it's also about the frustration caused by the love-hate relationship between the movie industry and the media. In this tragic comedy, John Travolta plays Sam Baily, a slow-witted but honest museum guard who loses his job because there just isn't enough money to pay him. He goes to talk to his boss about this, packing a weapon meant simply to "make her listen." He doesn't realize there is a group of school children in the building, and when the gun accidentally goes off, wounding Sam's friend and partner, he suddenly finds himself in over his head, with the children as hostages. Enter ambitious newsman Max Brackett (Dustin Hoffman), who was in the building planning a minor news story about fund-raising. Max sees that he has stumbled upon a story that could make his lagging carreer take off, and he begins coaching Sam on how to be a terrorist.

Stylistically, the film is well-executed, with a standout performance by Travolta. He is troubled, distracted, comical in his ineptness amidst a media event that gets him on Larry King Live and The Tonight Show. Sam's frustration and his lack of vocabulary to express it are beautifully portrayed. I love director Costa-Gavras's choice to leave in (or to engineer) mispronunciations and slips of the tongue by all the characters as they go for days with no sleep. Hoffman is calm, quiet, but absolutely determined to run this show; a subtle calculation permeates his character. The film establishes a palpable tension very early on; this falters at times, but generally remains. Blythe Danner and Mia Kirshner give good performances as the museum curator and Max's assistant, respectively; Alan Alda is typically bland as the network anchor.

Good acting and directing, however, can't always save a script riddled with trite sensibilities. The anti-media bent of Tom Matthews's text is also comical, though not meant to be. The bloodthirsty press is stereotyped so badly that the entire film loses credibility. Max is so driven to revive his career, he will stop at nothing, including endangering the lives of the children. What's more, the huge press corps that follows the story from outside the museum is like a pack of hungry sharks, launching into a feeding frenzy every time there is the slightest development. They trample flowerbeds, they edit tapes to turn words around, and when two of the children are released as a goodwill gesture, the reporters practically run them over to get the story. All of this is capped by the transformation of Max's young assistant, who goes in a few days from a thoughtful human being to the leader of the wolfpack, actually reveling when something tragic happens. Matthews may be trying to make some sort of personal statement, but his self-indulgence carries the film to the point of being laughably unrealistic.

Another problem is that although the children are held hostage for at least three days, they seem completely unconcerned, actually having quite a good time. Sam means them no harm, and he does whatever he can to make them comfortable, but still there is never once a crying child during this shotgun-armed, parent-less siege. Matthews must not have kids.

Go to see it for the acting, for the laughs, for the thought-provoking qualities. But please disregard the stupidity. ****

Copyright 1997 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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