Friday, May 11, 2012

From My Collection: Network Movie Review (Special 300th Review Classic)

I sat simply stunned at how good a screenplay Network has. The opening titles read “Network – by Paddy Chayefsky,” as if it’s a novel. Rarely has there been a more apt use of a byline in movies than with this film that has one of the most literate screenplays ever produced in the history of the movies. Chayefsky was not afraid to use words that some audience members might not understand. More impressive than that is that a major Hollywood studio was willing to take a chance on it. Network didn’t break the bank at the domestic box office, but for its budget it was stupendous.

I take a look around at today’s studio films – even those that are supposed to reap awards – and I see screenplays written to be understood by dullards. I see chunks of dialogue that merely service the plot. I see very little artistry in the construction of sentences and no attempt at poetry. Chayefsky’s lines are like Shakespearean verse. Every big speech in the film (and just about every character has one) is a treasure trove of poetic beauty. Paddy Chayefsky could write, dammit! Too many screenwriters today just plot. They ask, “How can I get the characters from point A to point B? How can I express what I want the characters to express?” Chayefsky wanted to express ideas of his own and he made his characters into people who could clearly articulate what he had to say about the state of our culture vis-à-vis television.

Thirty-six years later, the film hardly feels dated. It remains fresh and vital, possibly even necessary now more than ever. Looking back on it, the story is remarkably prescient in a way that is almost frightening. How keen was Chayefsky’s eye that he saw the writing on the wall enough to imagine what television would ultimately become. At its onset, TV had the power to change the world. It was a transformative development in mass media, bringing news and information into people’s homes. Entertainment is the most obvious use for such a platform. And I suppose it was just a matter of time before those three became inextricably fused to one another. That’s where we are today. I find watching most of what’s on television to be an exercise in slowly destroying my brain. Even ignoring the glut of reality television leaves slim pickings of useful and interesting content. The news stations keep us fed on a diet of infotainment, where every story is sensationalized to draw in viewers. Corporations own it all and as their goal is to earn money, news becomes yet another medium for generating revenue.

That wasn’t always the case. There was a time when the major networks kept news and programming as distinct and individual. The news divisions were permitted to operate on a budget deficit because they provided a public good. Once corporations got involved and mergers and acquisitions became more commonplace, that all stopped. That’s what Network is about. And it was about it before the advent of reality television and before cable TV and before the multitude of stations all competing for the same audience.

The film’s amoral villain is Diana Christensen, referred to as television incarnate by her erstwhile lover Max Schumacher. She is the new programming director at the fictional fourth network UBS and she sees the news division as an untapped market for new programs. Her goal is to air counter-culture and anti-establishment shows that will set them apart from the already well-known CBS, ABC and NBC. This movie was released more than a decade before Fox started airing “Married…With Children” and “The Simpsons.” Max is the closest thing the film has to a hero. He tries to stick close to his business and news ethics, but his values fall apart in his personal life when he enters into an affair with Diana, jilting his long-suffering wife, Louise.

Faye Dunaway brings soullessness to full breathing life in Diana. What might seem like the occasional overacting is how Dunaway shows that Diana is a woman unsure of her footing in a world dominated by men. As an actress, Dunaway pushes too hard because Diana does. William Holden is a natural as Max. He lets his whole body fall comfortably into the role. He is full of professional integrity as the only person at the network who speaks up for his friend, Howard Beale, the evening newscaster who goes through a very public nervous breakdown. Beatrice Straight famously won an Oscar for her five minutes of screen time as Louise. She has one big scene when Max tells her about the other woman and his leaving her. Her heartbreaking speech to him about being the one deserving of at the very least his devotion and respect if not his passion after 25 years is devastating and a pivotal moment in a film rife with people who step on each for gain.

Of course Peter Finch also won an Oscar for playing Howard Beale, but it’s another of those typical over-the-top performances that attracts big awards attention. He’s not bad. In fact he’s excellent, but the flashiest roles get all the accolades. Robert Duvall and Ned Beatty are equally good in their roles of Frank Hackett, a network executive, and Arthur Jensen, the Chairman of the corporate conglomerate that owns UBS.

Sidney Lumet is best known for his gritty urban crime dramas. Here he captures New York away from the crime, the police and lawyers to depict a different kind of underbelly – one that destroys the souls of humanity. It encompasses themes that are present in his work from Twelve Angry Men through Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. Working with cinematographer Owen Roizman, together they crafted a film that employs a visual style to match the lunacy of what’s happening on screen.

Network is not a satire in the traditional sense, but it does contain satirical elements. If you weren’t aware of that fact from the beginning, the scene that would tip you off involves network contract lawyers negotiating terms in the jargon of capitalism with fringe radicals. To see a militant black leftist arguing over who has to pick up the bill for the overhead on a reality-based show about her group’s exploits and the fact that she won’t see any profit until the show hits syndication is a special kind of hilarious.

As Howard Beale goes further off the rails, so goes the network. Christensen and Hackett are happy to keep him on the air in a format that allows him to rant like a lunatic about the ills of society because the ratings are good. In essence, they are exploiting a sick man for financial rewards. Max recognizes this, but does little to stop it. How different is this from the craven way network executives plaster faux-celebrities like Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian all over the TV? The bread and butter of reality TV comes from characters full of crazy and lots of conflict. Can anyone honestly watch these shows and tell themselves that these people are not just a little bit nuts, perhaps more in need of a mental health professional than a mass audience?

It is not, however, without its flaws. Chayefsky’s screenplay ultimately tries to tackle so much that it loses some control along the way. He was apparently so intent on letting the story become a sounding board for all the ills he saw in 1970s American culture that the film concludes with more than a few loose ends. It’s funny that you don’t really notice this at first, probably because it moves along at such a clip and with such fine performances and great writing. Lumet’s direction surely helped keep the movie afloat, but as the opening titles suggest, this film is largely a product of its brilliant screenwriter.

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