Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Network (1976)

Sidney Lumet's Network, like The Graduate, is a genre-bender of such generational importance and undeniable power that it is at first easy to overlook its flaws. Most of these trace back to Paddy Chayefsky's script, one of the most acclaimed in American film. It is an astute and prescient satire of American culture, yes, but it also has the unfortunate tendency to devolve into caricature and a lot of speechifying.

Network focuses on the fictional, lowly-rated television network UBS. When longtime, washed-up news anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch) is fired, he announces on the air that he will kill himself. The controversy attracts much attention, so Beale is exploited and reinvented as "the mad prophet of the airwaves." Max Schumacher (William Holden), Beale's longtime friend and colleague, is fired and replaced by programmers Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) and Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall), who will stop at nothing to get high ratings.

What is admirable about Network is the prophetic nature of its satire. Many things about Network are unbelievable, but the trashy Howard Beale Show looks more and more familiar every year. Years ahead of his time, Chayefsky seems to have predicted today's profusion of tawdry talk shows and mindless reality TV. And yet he is not so naive as to assume that things were ever entirely different. The film's moral center is Max Schumacher, Holden's character, who fancies himself an emblem of respectable journalism. Yet even he goes along with the Beale hysteria at first, only protesting when he is fired. No one is let off the hook in Network - least of all the TV viewers themselves, who are portrayed as passive, complacent players in the whole machine. An extremely cynical view, yes, but one the film expresses quite cleverly. In the movie's most famous scene, young people from all across the country, prompted by Beale's mad ramblings, yell out the window that they're "mad as hell and not going to take it anymore," a line regurgitated by an eager audience before each taping of the show. It is a frightening scene, and one that perfectly expresses how the masses can get behind a mindless catchphrase while thinking they are saying something meaningful.*

That is a skillful device, but much of Chayefsky's script suffers from a lack of such invention. Rather, he resorts to characters dishing out carefully worded monologues. Mind you, they sound great - until you realize that no one speaks that way in person. Chayefsky's script also suffers from tonal inconsistency, bouncing somewhat incongruously from satire to farce to drama. And many of his supporting characters are goofy caricatures; actors like Peter Finch, Ned Beatty, and Robert Duvall have little to do but rant and rave. The only actors who manage to give fully rounded performances are Faye Dunaway, William Holden, and Beatrice Straight in a small role as Holden's wife. Holden, especially, is terrific, injecting his role with sarcastic bite while remaining a likable, flawed character who is fully aware of his faults and limitations.

If there is one person who elevates Network to something greater than the sum of its parts, I am convinced it is Sidney Lumet. The director lacks any obvious auteurist touches, but as with 12 Angry Men, he does a superb job of building dramatic tension. Network also reveals that Lumet has a talent for comedy, and he never lets the film become too self-important. Finally, Lumet and his cinematographer Owen Roizman create a series of memorable images, from the famous "mad as hell" scene to the final, indicting shot.

In the end, the overall effect of Network is so powerful that its many imperfections almost seem not to matter. In one of the film's most affecting scenes, Holden asks Dunaway to love him, "primal doubts and all." She cannot accept him that way, but I embrace Network, inherent flaws and all.

Verdict: B+

*I don't mean to get political, but I keep thinking of this video.

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