Monday, July 23, 2012

Network (1976)

Network (1976)
Directed by: Sidney Lumet
Written by: Paddy Chayefsky
Starring: Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Peter Finch, Robert Duvall, Beatrice Straight, Ned Beatty
(121 minutes, Color)

Network was written by Paddy Chayefsky as a comedy. Audiences watching it today might not pick up on that, and they could hardly be blamed for taking the movie at face value. The movie labeled "frighteningly prophetic" by Turner Classic Movies is indeed an unbelievable presentation of what media has become in the 21st Century. What began as a satire can be looked back on as an unsettling, pitch-perfect warning; a humorous prophecy that somehow eerily came true.

Depressed newsman announces that he will commit suicide on live television, and instead of getting him treatment, the network decides to see what will happen next. This is the situation that is the core of Network's plot, and its center is poor, rejected reporter Howard Beale (Peter Finch). The network Beale works for, UBS, is struggling in the ratings department. Beale is blamed for this, and is informed by his best friend Max Schumacher (William Holden, in a crowning performance), chief of the news division, that he will be fired in two weeks. Beale vents his frustration on the air.

"I'm going to blow my brains out right on this program a week from today. So tune in next Tuesday. That should give the public relations people a week to promote the show. You ought to get a hell of a rating out of that. Fifty share, easy."

Later he recants his threat of suicide, but by that time, the ball is already rolling. Audiences take to Beale's brutal honesty ("You know what happened to me? I just ran out of bullshit. That's how we all live our lives: bullshit!" Beale proclaims on the air), and before long, the man's delusions are being fed into from every side. Often he gets so worked up during his lectures he faints. One night, while sleeping, Beale hears voices. It's then the audience knows he isn't joking.

How terrible it must be to lose one's mind. Watching Network again, I was reminded of a quote from another great movie I enjoy, 1995's Se7en: "When a person is insane, as you clearly are, do you know that you're insane? Do you ever just stop and go, 'Wow! It's amazing how crazy I am?'" Howard Beale's mental breakdown occurs quickly, but is preceded by a pattern of depression. The voices he hears tell him to preach an "elementary, human truth." Beale asks the voices "why me?" and they reply, "Because you're on television, dummy." Beale is so sick he plays into his own exploitation. He refuses to let Schumacher take him off the air, even though Schumacher realizes Beale is being treated like a carnival freak. "The man is insane! He's not responsible for himself. All you graverobbers care about is that he's a hit!"

Peter Finch plays Beale entirely straight, which is the only way to portray a crazy person so entirely convinced of their sanity. Beale never questions his vision, and if doubt had leaked into Finch's performance, it would instantly collapse. Beale is happier insane than sane, and when he shouts his signature line "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this any more!", the audience believes that people could actually be moved by his words. On television it's not what you say but how you say it. Beale erupts with a passion that makes the ferocity of fire and brimstone preachers seem infantile. Before long, audiences respond to his chants and prophecy. It doesn't matter that the man telling them how to live their lives is completely insane. What they need is someone telling them what to think so they don't need to do it for themselves. The comparison to today's media-obsessed society is so obvious I need not even make it.

Beale denounces his show and television in general. "Less than three percent of you people read books! Less than fifteen percent of you read newspapers! The only truth you know is what you get over this tube. Right now, there is a whole generation that never knew anything that didn't come out of this tube! This tube is the Gospel, the ultimate revelation. This tube can make or break presidents, popes, prime ministers...This tube is the most awesome goddamn force in the whole godless world, and woe to us if it ever falls into the hands of the wrong people." Beale implores his audience to fact-check, get information from reliable sources, and think for themselves. "Who knows what shit will be peddled on this network for truth?" he exclaims. "Television is not the answer! Go to God! Go to your gurus, go to yourselves - because that's the only place you're ever going to find truth."

And what does the audience do? They applaud, and the ratings soar.

Beale is what Network is most remembered for, but its main character isn't Beale, it's the programming director Diana Christensen. Diana is a single-minded person and a monster of a programming director. It's her idea to keep Beale on the air to attract ratings after his breakdown, and she is the motivating force behind all of the network's "angry" programming. After Vietnam and Watergate, she says, people are eager to see programs that are anti-establishment and vent public frustrations. Replace Vietnam and Watergate with 9/11 and the War On Terror, and you have pin-pointed the motivation behind today's television programming. Chayefsky thought he could use the events of the 1970s to motivate characters in his satire. What he didn't know was that he was thirty years away from the truth.

Modern television has gone to angry and back. We tried shows that vented our frustration and troubles, but the problem was, they only ended up reminding us of where we were stuck in the first place. Now the trend in TV seems to be toward the mindless entertainment that simultaneously distracts us from our troubles and keeps us from solving them.

Diana is single-minded and ferocious. She destroys Schumacher's career and seduces him weeks later, manipulating him into leaving his wife for her. She promises air time to a communist spokesperson in exchange for negotiations with the wanted leader of a violent revolutionary sect, The Ecumenical Liberation Army. The Army (which bears comical ties to Patty Hearst and the Symbionese Liberation Army) will be the star of a new TV series, the "Mao-Tse Tung Hour," that revolves around violent hate crimes perpetrated by incendiary dissidents. "Great Sunday night show for the whole family," a character smiles. Diana rolls her eyes when she notes that the group is wanted by the federal government. She later dismisses law enforcement concerns with a shoulder shrug. She doesn't give a damn about safety or legality. "A 50 share," she confides in Schumacher. "That's all I want out of life."

The relationship between Diana and Schumacher is one aspect of the movie that is less satirical and more tragic. If all of the characters in Network were caricatures in service of the black comedy, we wouldn't care when they lose or win. Although aspects of the illicit romance are funny (Diana spends an entire romantic getaway talking about television ratings, not even pausing during orgasm in sex), the plot line fleshes out Dunaway and Holden's characters, the two central figures in the movie. Diana is ruthless, but we know she has a heart. The glee on her face when she finally gets the ratings she wants resembles that of a child on Christmas; it lets us know there's a real person under there, somewhere. Thus we believe that Schumacher is really in love with her. The scene where Schumacher leaves his wife is completely heartbreaking, not because of the act of splitting, but because both parties are so disillusioned to the situation. Louise Schumacher (Beatrice Straight, who won an Academy Award for her supporting performance) is so upset because she knows she couldn't give anything more to her husband than she already has/is. There's just some spark in Diana, despite her lack of devotion, that Louise doesn't have. She knows she can do nothing to change it. Schumacher, for his part, knows that Diana is using him and that their fling won't last. He knows that he will regret leaving his wife. But he leaves anyway. Later, when Schumacher finally leaves the emotionally damaged Diana, he knows as well as we do that Louise isn't waiting to take him back. There can't be a happy ending for him. "You are television incarnate, Diana," he tells her, "indifferent to suffering, insensitive to joy. All of life is reduced to the common rubble of banality."

Then there's Hackett (Robert Duvall), a willing slave to the CCA, Communication Corporation of America, which owns UBS. He takes control of all the network branches and manipulates them against each other to get higher ratings. He's a critical force in manipulating Beale for higher ratings, but can't see that Beale is a loose cannon. There's no driving a crazy person off the edge, and there's no stopping them once they roll. Hackett is a corporate tool, but a rich and powerful one. That's all he cares about. Ethics, safety, loyalty: everything is negotiable.

Lumet lets many scenes in the movie, especially toward the beginning, breathe with a freedom that is rare in intelligent dramas today. Today we hear all sorts of ideological speeches that are pretty to listen to but lack any and all semblance of subtlety. Network's characters live and talk in real time. They don't wait for each other to finish their dramatic lectures and speeches before interjecting. The exchanges of dialogue don't feel scripted, they feel like real conversations. Characters mumble, curse, talk over each other, and actually say what's on their minds. Not every conversation serves a purpose in the plot. These are real people, and they act like it. The movie's satire is most obvious in outrageous scenes in which network executives plot an onscreen assassination, and another in which opposing political factions fight not about ideology but about air time. Other times what was considered outlandish then isn't unheard of now. A television network exploiting a crazy employee to gain ratings? That's not broad comedy, that's a headline out of tomorrow's paper.

I would venture to say that Network works better now than when it was released. It's certainly more relevant now. It's one of the best movies to come out of the last golden age of American cinema, and I think it will always stick in the public's mind. Network is one of those rare movies that excels on so many little levels that the film as a whole is a shining model of perfection. There's hardly been a better ensemble piece ever made. As a comedy, it would be hysterical if it weren't so perceptive. In Network, the general public is a massive herd of beasts: unintelligent, immature, and just waiting to be guided into slaughter by whoever will lead them. Audiences in 1976 laughed. Audiences today are looking into a mirror. Preparing to watch Network a second time on DVD, I caught the slogan: "Still mad as hell after 30 years." Indeed.

Network is rated R by the MPAA, for unspecified reasons. The movie contains lots of foul language, but its usage is never excessive or unrealistic. Lots of thematic elements revolve around murder, politics, deceit, and adultery. An adulterous sex scene is shown, albeit with no nudity and in a comedic context. Like many movies I write about, it's not necessarily inappropriate for teens, but frankly, many of them just won't get it. It's better saved for adults who can appreciate it.

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