Once more I have to stand up to the serious film critics and tell them they're wrong. This film has had mostly unfavourable reviews, but I consider it to be brilliant, like all the films directed by Costa-Gavras (real name Konstantinos Gavras). He doesn't make many films, but the ones he makes are all masterpieces. This is no exception.
The natural history museum in Madeline, California has been forced to make cutbacks. Sam Baily, one of the two security guards, has been fired. He's so ashamed that he can't tell his wife about it. He goes out every day and sits in a cinema watching films until it's his normal time to go home. He begs his former boss, Mrs. Banks, for another chance. When she refuses he goes back with a gun to persuade her. He's not a bad man. He just wants his job back. That's all.
While talking to Mrs. Banks Sam's gun accidentally goes off, badly injuring his friend, the other security guard. Sam panics and locks the museum's doors. He's locked in the museum with Mrs. Banks, a class of young children and the reporter Max Brackett, who was visiting the museum to interview Mrs. Banks about the cutbacks.
Max used to be a reporter on one of the big national channels. Two years ago he was fired for being a loose cannon, and he now works for a small local television station. He sees this hostage situation as a chance to get his old job back. He talks to Sam, advising him on how to talk to the hostage negotiators. Max thinks that Sam has an important story to tell, so he advises him on what to do to become popular with the American public. He makes Sam no promises. He tells him he'll have to go to jail when he leaves the museum, but if he plays his cards right it'll only be a short sentence, and when he leaves jail he'll be offered a television show.
Sam and Max spend three days together with the "hostages". Max coaches Sam in what to say and do. For instance, when the first two children are released Max tells Sam that one has to be black so that nobody will accuse him of racism.
The children aren't scared of Sam. They sit fascinated when he tells them stories. He unlocks the vending machines to give them snacks. Significantly, when the first children are released they're scared of the reporters who rush to interview them and try to run back into the museum.
John Travolta has never been one of my favourite actors, but he's very impressive in this film. It's probably his best performance ever, even better than his role as Vincent in "Pulp Fiction".
In his earlier years I considered Dustin Hoffman to be the world's best actor. Who else came close to him in the 1960's, 1970's and 1980's? This was his last really great film. He's lost his magic over the last 20 years. Let's hope he can get it back.
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