Network (1976, Sidney Lumet)

!!! A+ FILM !!!

It’s obvious to the point of sounding glib, but must be noted in any competent approach to Network: television has changed vastly — as a business and as an entertainment form — since the 1970s. Three networks are now four or five, and that’s just broadcast. What once seemed absurd and outrageous is now, in the wake of every groundbreaker or jaw-dropper, good and bad, from Cops to Roseanne to The Simpsons to The O’Reilly Factor to 16 and Pregnant, almost adorably quaint. Can satire lose its teeth when we know so much of it to have passed into eerie truth? And when its sensibilities and concerns are tied so firmly to its hotbed post-Watergate era? Seeing Network now, these barely register as serious debits; the brilliance of Paddy Chayefsky’s script is not that it predicts some outrageous Mel Brooks future but that it is close to mere reportage of the coming changings of the guard as Chayefsky saw them. It probably counts as more straightforward and honest than most of what we’re fed on 24-hour news channels today — and yet this very honesty gives it bite, intelligence, passionate anger. The fact that we now know Chayefsky was right about virtually everything has only made the film stronger through the years.

“Satire” is often a code word for comedy that scoffs at the “comedy” label, a specific kind of stuffy symbolic elitism; but Network is a fun and resonant film because it’s built from an equally fun, unrestrained, and nutty script. Chayefsky has a field day with it while never copping to the satirist’s usual failing of rendering his pointed, slightly didactic story with flat and inhuman characters. In fact, the humans populating this story are so human it’s like a deceptive sort of bait, leading us to trust all of the bizarre story points about how a struggling hypothetical fourth network, UBS, finds a way to cynically force its way to great success, with its last few vestiges of traditionalism gone in a heartbeat, no Murrow or Cronkite to anchor it back in reality. The actors do much to make this detailed, intricate literary triumph worthy of your best popcorn shot, but most of the work to rein Chayefsky in (miraculously, without changing any of the writer’s intentions) is done by the great Sidney Lumet. His solid, steady-handed, unobtrusive direction — mirrored not imperfectly by Alan Pakula’s work on All the President’s Men this same year — is a simply perfect counterpoint due to his reluctance to place the story outside our world in some sort of Mort Drucker caricature. His unerring rationality lets him do justice to the drama, in turn giving the comedy its real resonance. It doesn’t hurt that even in the thirteen years since I first saw the film, it’s already become still more accurate and truthful.

Even at its most outlandish, the film comes from a real place of American angst and a certain need to burst out of a constraining shell that hasn’t changed through the years — the crying out for individuality is as strong an impulse as ever, so when Peter Finch’s face-in-the-crowd anchor Howard Beale begins to crack on the air, on news of forced retirement, and shows genuine Christine Chubbuck-style derangement, in a perverse way he’s giving a voice to something deep down. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Finch’s best known, best performed, most rapturously beautiful rant of all and the strongest moment of the film, at which point his arm-waving theatricality and power of wild-eyed suggestion is able to prompt hordes of people to lean halfway out their windows and announce they’re mad-as-hell and this and that to the neighborhood. UBS sees lawsuits and FCC regulations looming but more perceptive people at UBS see dollars in their eyes, like perceptive people behind the scenes always invariably do, and the new thirst for controversy at the heart now of their suddenly corrupt news division bleeds over into general programming, with proto-reality shows about things like terrorist activity by a Panther-caricature. And Beale’s show turns into a near-evangelical clusterfuck, news as Sonny & Cher variety hour with constant risk of some bomb or another going off.

The poetry in Chayefsky’s script — the utter fucking magic of it — is that the most insane, unbelievable ending he can come up with is the only possible ending at all, and one that by the time we reach it feels positively organic, just as it would in real life. Why not assassinate a man as popular entertainment? We’ve gone so far for entertainment of our mobs, helicopter blades spinning and lyrically popping the heads off children, literal political self-immolation, and the 19″ continued drama of oppression we witness over chicken dinner. It has to be this way because the best interests and the financial interests will always ultimately diverge, and death and dollars will emerge.

Like Rod Serling, Chayefsky in the ’50s made the idea of TV writer as celebrity into something comprehensible and familiar to a mature adult audience, and it takes someone that steeped in TV to really boldly define, explain, and defame it. It would be relatively easy to firebomb such a major institution — with, frankly, more influence upon the scope of American culture in the ’70s than it has today — in broad strokes and broader jokes, with fervor and bombast. Well, fervor and bombast we’ve got but Chayefsky’s dialogue just dances — its verbosity and wit are off the deep end, and become more impressively subversive with each viewing. As subversive, indeed, as Beale’s looney-tunes rants, which often make so much sense in all their bluster and eventual fatalism that in a slightly buried manner you can lead yourself to wonder if he’s not somehow a mouthpiece for Chayefsky.

Serling and Chayefsky were both famous for characters who spoke in monologues, a somewhat inevitable feature of talking-head TV that carried over into their film work, but the monologues in this film, whether mumbled or coarsely shouted, are so powerful, nuts, hilarious that you want to run around the room after each of them. Faye Dunaway gives a brilliant performance as intensely focused, cynical programmer Diana Christensen, a role so deeply reliant upon the rhythm of Chayefsky’s writing that only a great actress could make it real. And yet, somehow, the actors who work less hard make an equally large impression. William Holden, as stunning as ever, somehow approaches the weathered careerism of his big-hearted but easily manipulated Max Schumacher as though he’s on the Broadway stage, as though his character is himself aware of the beauty of his words — and yet it works, as if Chayefsky were something like Shakespeare. And indeed, the dialogue of Network is about as close as we get in our modern world. But better yet is the way that Ned Beatty, in a brief but striking cameo as fearsome head sponsor-honcho, completely fails to take his role seriously, carrying it to maximum possible volume well past any concern for believability, and manages to figure in the most unforgettable and searing single shot of the film, his cold and direct, fire-breathing assault on Beale’s notions of independence and freedom from corporate influence a shot of logical dread and a touch to the molten core of something that simply does not happen in Hollywood film, even as Hollywood remains the only place in which a discussion of such material could ever feel so important.

As far as the prophecy of Network, you probably don’t need to be told any of that. As with with the more straightforward Broadcast News, its dark warnings have nearly all come true, with network television a circus of bad taste and state-mandated conformity, and with news departments a festival of cuddly prejudices and real life repackaged as a series of pithy, thirty-second morsels appealing to the emptiest and most primal parts of our heads. Now it feels like just a slight exaggeration of the way things are now, so it means more to us and plays differently than it likely did in the ’70s, for we know these people and we know these ideas. The future has become the present. And when it becomes the past? No doubt Network will serve as a unique roadmap displayng how we got in this horrible mess.

I have no doubt that Network will remain a tremendous masterpiece long after all of its sentiments have become quaint signals of a bygone period, long after the entire populace has succumbed. Not only will it serve as a window into another era, it also brings us characters with whom we all, despite ourselves, come to feel a personal connection — thus humanizing the shadowy ghosts of the tiny box. Beale himself is an American dream of acting out upon the threat of livelihood being ripped away; Diana represents the introvert whose only solace is found in work, just as much as James Bond or Mya in Zero Dark Thirty; but most wrenching of all is the strong but challenged marriage of Max and his wife, brilliantly served in another meaty cameo by Beatrice Straight. Their scene together is among the most compassionate, poetic, beautiful scenes of a souring (perhaps temporarily) love affair in cinema — because it’s so unusual for Hollywood to confront the existence of lengthy and well-founded adult relationships, Chayefsky’s approach here to actually dealing with the ambiguities, the pain, and even the understanding of a wronged wife and a good man who knows he’s wronging her comes from such a place of deep empathy it nearly overshadows the rest of the film… and has nearly nothing to do with its thesis, but is utterly necessary.

That humanism is the glimmer of hope that turns Network from a remarkable film to a true masterpiece. And this perhaps does not belong in an essay about the film’s own content, but it can really stun you to realize that it lost the Academy Award to Rocky, of all things; even Lumet himself was unable to be fully philosophical about it into his eighties. The problem is that this, one of the greatest American films ever made, was released in the same year as All the President’s Men, another of the greatest American films ever made, and Taxi Driver, which a lot of people feel is too one of the greatest American films ever made. A three-way split gave the statue to Rocky, hardly the most offensive win imaginable, bubt quite remarkable in the face of its competition. It’s a bit perfect, though, that a film that so mercilessly places its needle in the balloon of corporate-sanctioned American culture couldn’t possibly receive the top Oscar; Broadcast News, just as critical, lost to the far less deserving The Last Emperor, the subtler Quiz Show to a film that doesn’t even deserve to have its name mentioned in an essay about Network.

That’s an injustice but not a terribly serious one — not to sound conspiratorial but it does serve as a much-needed reminder of who’s really looking out for whose interests, just like the movie itself. Really, does any huge American company want the general public to remember in 2013 that they’re mad as hell and can’t take it anymore? It’s the last thing they want. They don’t want them getting any big ideas. So yeah, call the film a “satire” and lock it in a time capsule, for it’s meddled in the primal forces of nature and we can’t have that. “The world is a business,” says one man, who will talk about all of those in a position of informative power really being salesmen — and he’s got an army of eager beavers to preach this evangel.

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