Sunday, February 20, 2011
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 64
Writer: Paddy Chayefsky
Director: Sidney Lumet
Star: Faye Dunaway, Peter Finch, William Holden
“Network” has managed to be one of the only films to pull of the seemingly impossible task of “de-aging” since its release in 1976. It certainly must have seemed like outlandish satire in its first year of release, but today the movie seems like a pointed, subversive send-up of currently broadcasting channels like Fox News, E! and many others. How many other films can claim that they are more topical today then when they were released? I’d argue for “In Cold Blood,” “All About Eve” and the original version of “The Manchurian Candidate,” but very few, if any, others.
Well-respected-but-aging UBS national news anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch) was recently fired and appears to have reacted to the news by having something like a nervous breakdown. How can we tell? The next day he announces on air that he will be committing suicide on his final episode. He’s pulled immediately, but the next day convinces network executive Max (William Holden) to let him say a goodbye on air. Instead, he launches into either another insane tirade or perhaps his only lucid moment in the film when he laments that he just got sick and tired of life’s “bullshit.” Ratings skyrocket and executives over Max’s head decide to keep Beale on the air, just to see what happens next and if the 18-49 year old audience sticks around.
We are introduced to more studio executives, all soulless and conniving to one degree or another. Robert Duvall plays the none-too-subtly named Frank Hackett, who is obsessed with making the fiscally irresponsible news segment profitable, whatever the means. Faye Dunaway is most memorable as Diana Christensen, who provides Hackett with those means, which involve giving Beale his own spin-off series and greenlighting a series about a terrorist sect called the Ecumenical Liberation Army. Diana gets Hackett to fire Max, and Max is so shaken up that he immediately falls into bed with her, despite the pesky fact that he is married.
At some point we realize that all of the characters in the film are also having their own nervous breakdowns, but no one questions them because they have big offices, expensive suits and control the bottom line.
The first hour of the film doesn’t seem to last more than a minute or two because it is so witty, fast-paced and subversively funny. Beale’s threat of suicide seems to be inspired by the mostly-forgotten-except-among-newspeople (of which I’m one) on-air suicide of news anchor Christine Chubbuck. The Ecumenical Liberation Army is a spoof of the group that kidnapped Patty Hearst and at one point “The Mao Tse-Tung Hour” is greenlit. Of course these news stories have faded from most of the public’s memory, but the inspiration remains the same. We laugh, but the subject matter really not that funny, is it? Writer Paddy Chayefsky wants to get us as angry as we are entertained.
The high point of the film comes when Beale wanders on his stage during a live broadcast wearing a raincoat and pajamas and declares that “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” The camera follows him as he continues to rage and encourages his audience to scream the same thing. All across the country we see windows flung open as people scream the same phrase into the streets. It’s the pure, undiluted anger of a country allowed only to create a wider profit margin for UBS.
After this, the film begins to stumble a bit, awkwardly trying to instill emotions and feeling into a story that loathes such a sentiment. Beale disappears from camera for long periods of time, and he is missed. Chayefsky seems to be surrendering to the necessity to have human feeling in his film but, even then, mocks it and make it seem languid. Take the scene where Max and Diana take a romantic holiday weekend together. Director Sidney Lumet shoots it in soft focus, giving us all the clichés we expect from such scenes, but Chayefsky inserts dry, television-related dialogue from Diana throughout. The result is an odd, unbalanced second and third act that has several astonishingly powerful, funny moments but other uncomfortable missteps.
Perhaps some of this comes from the miscasting of Holden. Holden is a very good actor, but this was over twenty years since he was so startlingly dark in “Sunset Blvd.”, and his persona had softened considerably. We want to like him, and we don’t buy him so dismissively leaving his wife and jumping into Diana’s bed. The persona he creates here can’t sell fourth-wall-breaking lines like, “And it's a happy ending: Wayward husband comes to his senses, returns to his wife, with whom he has established a long and sustaining love. Heartless young woman left alone in her arctic desolation. Music up with a swell; final commercial. And here are a few scenes from next week's show,” no matter how great they read in the script. Perhaps someone like Kirk Douglas or Tony Curtis would have been a better choice.
Whatever the cause for the lack of balance in the film’s second half, it’s hard to argue that Chayefsky’s screenplay is anything but amazing. When Diana is introduced to one of the terrorist sect’s representatives, the following exchange takes place:
-“I’m Diana Christensen, a racist lackey of the imperialist ruling circles.”
-“I’m Lauren Hobbs, a badass commie nigger.”
-“Sounds like the basis of a firm friendship.”
There are so many small moments like that where Chayefsky gets it precisely right, and others, like when Hobbs is very vocal about her contract negotiations, where he purposely goes so over the top you are bursting with laughter. He’s the kind of once-in-a-generation writers, like Aaron Sorkin (who paid homage to Chayefsky’s “Mad as hell” speech in the fantastic pilot of his “Studio 60 On the Sunset Strip” series), who can successfully make the intricacies of politics not only digestible to a mass audience, but make them hugely enjoyable as well. Instead of getting a screenplay credit, he instead gets an “author” credit in the main titles: “Network By Paddy Chayefsky,” and that sounds about right.
This isn’t to say that we should not give Lumet the credit he deserves for keeping the ship upright and getting it successfully through the changes in tone. He also gets Dunaway to give the performance of her career here, and his casting for the smaller roles is flawless.
Despite how funny the film is, the truths beneath the humor ring almost frighteningly true today. I’m fairly Glenn Beck shouldn’t be worried about being executed on air during one of his tirades if his ratings go down…but then again, Beck actually managed to get a “hit” television show to spew his ramblings…so who knows?
My Score (out of 5): ****