`Hero' Mocks the Media Circus

The film probes the question: Who would the press rather parade as their hero?

`HERO," the new movie with Dustin Hoffman and Geena Davis, has a long pedigree from older Hollywood films. Parts of it recall "Ace in the Hole," made by Billy Wilder in 1951, a ferocious look at a disastrous accident turned into a media circus. Other parts recall "Meet John Doe," the 1941 classic by Frank Capra about a love-your-neighbor campaign based on lies and fraudulence.

Yet one of the refreshing things about "Hero" is that it manages to be a daringly original film despite these resemblances. It's geared not to the past but to our media-blitzed present, showing how the feel-good cliches of mainstream film and television can grow from manipulation of a gullible mass audience by power-brokers too jaded to recognize their own cynicism.

Mr. Hoffman plays Bernie Laplante, a small-time crook whose idea of a clever hustle is stealing the wallet of a lawyer who's defending him in court. The only good thing about Bernie is that he loves his young son and feels genuinely sad that a prison term is about to part them.

Then, just before his sentence is due to start, destiny strikes. A plane crashes almost on top of Bernie's car, and a young boy begs him to go inside and rescue his injured father. Bernie never sticks his neck out for nobody, but he can't say no to a kid just like his own. He ends up rescuing one passenger after another - mostly because they're in his way as he pokes around for the youngster's dad - and then hitchhiking back to town.

Later, one of the victims he saved, a high-powered TV reporter played by Ms. Davis, decides to find this hero who disappeared into the night. Her station offers $1 million if he'll reveal himself - but Bernie's in the slammer now, and an imposter named John steps forward to claim the money, becoming a world celebrity while Bernie howls about injustice in his cell.

"Hero" is a smart and funny movie and also a surprisingly complex one. Bernie, the real hero, is a wormy little guy who rarely does anything good in the world. John, the fake hero, is a sensitive man who never did anything bad before. Gale, the TV reporter, uses her power with hardly a thought of its far-reaching impact - and sets the hero-worship in motion less out of gratitude than because it'll promote her own career.

These moral ambiguities provide the occasion for much wry and intelligent comedy - and serve as a welcome antidote to the simplistic moralizing of so many films that won't take the chance of ruffling sensibilities at the box office.

"Hero" was directed by Stephen Frears, whose credits range from "My Beautiful Laundrette" to "Dangerous Liaisons" and "The Grifters," a checkered but somewhat impressive list. Along with Hoffman and Davis, the movie features Andy Garcia as John, comedian Chevy Chase as a very funny TV executive, Joan Cusack as Bernie's wife, and Susie Cusack in a small but delightful appearance as his long-suffering lawyer.

All of them have a wonderful time with the sometimes slippery characters they play, making "Hero" into a hero of a film. Also praiseworthy are the sardonic screenplay by David Webb Peoples, based on a story he wrote with Laura Ziskin and Alvin Sargent, and the cinematography by Oliver Stapleton, which ably enhances the often-shifting moods of the story. Mick Audsley edited the picture, and Dennis Gassner designed it. George Fenton composed the score.

If the ironies of "Hero" prompt audiences to think more about the role of mass media in their lives, they might also want to see "Feed," a remarkable new documentary that focuses on the role of television in the current presidential campaign. Even its title is ironic, referring to the way video sources "feed" their images and sounds to larger communication networks, and also to the way politicians attempt to "feed" their messages to the public they hope to influence.

The main content of "Feed" is imagery of this year's presidential hopefuls - not only George Bush and Bill Clinton but their opponents in the primaries - as beamed to TV outlets around the United States during the hotly contested New Hampshire race.

What makes the film unique is that much of this material was never intended for living-room viewing, but was broadcast by satellite transmitters in the moments before actual televising was scheduled to start. What we see is the way politicians look and sound in unguarded moments when they're preparing the behavioral facades they wear for public consumption.

"Feed" was directed by Kevin Rafferty and James Ridgeway, whose previous film was the searing "Blood in the Face," a report on contemporary right-wing extremism. Their most audacious footage was gathered from rooftop satellite dishes with the help of Brian Springer, a TV activist who has - like the film itself - a flair for guerrilla video and a healthy interest in deconstructing the deceptively smooth flow of images that mainstream television would prefer to leave unchallenged. "Feed" is one of the year 's most riveting and revealing documentaries. And, at times, one of the funniest.

* "Hero" is rated PG-13 for strong language. "Feed" is not rated.

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