Thursday 8 April 2010

Network (1976)

Director: Sidney Lumet
Stars: Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Peter Finch and Robert Duvall

I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

The early seventies were a cynical time in the United States. Richard Nixon had resigned as president in 1974 over the Watergate Affair. In 1975 the Americans lost the Vietnam War after fifteen years of fighting and almost sixty thousand of their own dead. This film begins right after two unsuccessful assassination attempts on the new president, Gerald Ford. No wonder Network was so successful in 1976, even though Rocky beat it out at the Oscars. It is perhaps the darkest, the most cynical and the most blistering script that mainstream Hollywood ever turned into a film. Ace in the Hole doesn't come close and even Brazil may not be quite as cynical as this, its famous ending notwithstanding. Paddy Chayefsky, already a two time Oscar winner for Marty and The Hospital, became here the first and still the only writer to win a third. Before his screen career he'd worked successfully in television, so he knew what he was writing about and he saw what was to come.

And Network gets better every year because of that prescience. As dark, cynical and blistering as it is, the history we've watched unfold in the three decades since its release has only backed up in reality what Chayefsky showed us here in no uncertain terms. What's most amazing is that the story is nothing less than the same thing in capsule form, its very real wake up call to us beginning as a wake up call to the fictional people who run the fictional UBS television network. Howard Beale, a previously acclaimed news anchor whose fortunes had gradually declined over six years to the point where he's fired, decides to tell a live audience that he's going to kill himself. 'Since this show is the only thing I had going for me in my life,' he says, 'I've decided to kill myself. I'm going to blow my brains out right on this program a week from today.' Amazingly, his technical crew don't even notice because he's dropped so low that even the people in the same studio don't listen to him.

Of course once it's brought to their attention, they drag him off the air and he's done for, but for a quirk of circumstance. UBS has been bought by another three letter acronym corporation, CCA, and they're making big changes. Executive Senior Vice President Frank Hackett is the man taking over everyone and everything, and in the able form of Robert Duvall he's doing a bang up job of it. The only department that's been guaranteed safety from this battery of powerplays is the news division, run by Max Schumacher, even though it makes a $32m loss every single year. Yet at a stockholders meeting Hackett singles out News for attention and announces his plans to restructure it all into something else entirely. That doesn't make Schumacher happy in the slightest, and Schumacher is Howard Beale's best friend of many years, one played by a powerful William Holden who looks a lot older than he did only three years earlier in Breezy.

He's already agreed to let Beale back on the air for one last appearance, to apologise for his outburst and calmly and politely close out his career without looking like a clown. It even seems like he's going to do that. 'Yesterday, I announced on this program that I was going to commit public suicide,' he says, 'admittedly, an act of madness. Well, I'll tell you what happened. I just ran out of bullshit.' This time the techs are listening and they're ready to cut him off the moment this happens but Schumacher lets it run, live and uncensored. 'If this is how he wants to go out,' he decrees, 'this is how he goes out.' The executives are livid, but over in Programming, Hackett's golden girl Diana Christensen, a newly appointed vice president, senses something special. She realises how timely this is. 'The American public want someone to articulate their rage for them,' she says and watching Beale, she knows who that's going to be.

Watching Chayefsky's story unfold, we should be stunned at how out of touch it becomes but we're not. We're thrown that stunner very quickly, in Diana's office as she raves about some footage she has of a terrorist group called the Ecumenical Liberation Army who film themselves robbing a bank. She sees a series, The Mao Tse Tung Hour, where each episode begins with a real act of terrorism padded out by drama, and she doesn't see any moral conflicts with the idea. She's played by Faye Dunaway, who looks great here. She's utterly alive through the film, her eyes flaming with passion. Even her eyebrows act about as much as she does. And yet she's far from a heroine, because she has no connection to reality whatsoever. She lives the job because its the only thing she doesn't conspicuously fail at. In fact she runs through all those failings to Schumacher at dinner. 'All I want out of life is a 30 share and a 20 rating,' she says and it doesn't matter that we don't really know what that means.

We soon find out why she's inept at everything but work: she never leaves it. She and Schumacher end up having an affair and we're treated at one point to a seemingly unending series of classic clichéd romantic scenes, but just as The Naked Gun defuses the cliché by having its romantic couple walk laughing hand in hand out of a movie theatre showing Platoon, this one foregoes the cheesy background song for Diana talking shop. Constantly. She talks about federal litigation, front page publicity and daytime programming while they take a romantic stroll along a beach, while they hold hands at dinner, while they have sex in a hotel. Even after she lays her head down on his chest with her eyes closed she's still talking about a potential homosexual soap opera. It's all entirely ludicrous and it just underlines how out of touch with reality she is.

There's a lot of that here. She's almost breathless as she tries to sell her Beale concept to Frank Hackett. 'I see Howard Beale as a latter-day prophet,' she says, 'a magnificent messianic figure, inveighing against the hypocrisies of our times.' She believes it too, but Hackett protests. 'We're talking about putting a manifestly irresponsible man on national television,' he replies and she just nods at him and widens her eyes. They're both dreaming of shares, ratings and dollars. When he doesn't say no she stands there almost orgasmic. And so Beale gets his show, as 'the mad prophet of the airwaves', along with Sybil the Soothsayer predicting the future by manipulating her magnetic field, and Mata Hari and her Skeletons in the Closet and a bunch of other nonsense. The ratings keep going up, that's all that matters to these people and how they see things is what matters to us. More apocalyptic doom, because that's what sells.

While the hero in Brazil went insane at the end of the film to escape reality, our hero here goes insane at the beginning of the film, only to find that it's what he needed all along to reverse his fortunes and become a bona fide star. In fact what defines the good guys in this film, who are admittedly very flawed indeed, is that they're so out of touch with their industry that they fade away as it changes around them. Beale goes crazy but if he wasn't insane he'd be out of a job. Schumacher goes through a mid-life crisis, embarking on an obsessive relationship with the very woman who takes his place after he's forced to resign. Even the old execs try to fight the new directions UBS is taking but prove inconsequential. Director Ed Ruddy has a stroke and dies, president Nelson Chaney stays in place but becomes meaningless.

Surprisingly Holden didn't win an Oscar for his work, even though he is excellent as usual and he's tasked not just with portraying a part but also with grounding the entire film. Max Schumacher is the only central character who is really connected to reality, as he proves when he translates it to Diana in the only terms she understands, scripts and screen gimmicks. Three actors did win Oscars, an achievement that equalled that of A Streetcar Named Desire, but none of the three meet at any point in the picture. They all interact with the story through Schumacher: as his best friend, his lover and his wife. Perhaps Holden lost because Finch died before the ceremony was held and so won for his career and out of sympathy rather than for his performance. He's dynamic, blistering and very memorable but Holden gets the subtlety.

The bad guys are the people Beale raves about, sometimes literally because he attacks his own company. Robert Duvall is truly mercenary as Frank Hackett, who you know would do anything to anyone to progress his career. Only CCA chairman Arthur Jensen can keep him in check and he doesn't care about anyone else, even the FCC, who 'can't do anything but rap our knuckles.' Faye Dunaway is electric as his protége, who isn't just out there morally, she's so far out there that she believes her own hype. When Schumacher wants to take Beale off the air because he's not responsible for himself and needs care and treatment, she suggests that 'it's just possible that he isn't insane, that he is, in fact, imbued with some special spirit.' Dunaway does her job so well that we almost believe that she believes it. Ned Beatty gets a small but memorable role as Jensen, giving Beale his own rant which is overblown and overplayed but perfectly grounded at the finalé.

Most striking to me from the supporting cast isn't Beatrice Straight, who won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her five minutes and forty seconds of screen time as Max Schumacher's wife, good as she is with her fake eyelash malfunctions. It's Marlene Warfield, who as Laureen Hobbs plays the link between UBS and the urban terrorists that Diana Christensen feels are tapping into the nerve of the country at the time. When she flies out to LA to set up The Mao Tse Tung Hour with Hobbs, she introduces herself as 'a racist lackey of the imperialist ruling circles', Hobbs following suit by replying that she's a 'a badass Commie nigger.' So naturally that's a basis for a firm friendship. Chayefsky's script makes it very clear that it doesn't matter what your principles are, they're corruptible and once you make it onto television, you're a fake. Warfield gets a great and truly surreal scene fighting for her distribution rights with a bunch of corporate lawyers, who include a young Lance Henriksen.

At the end of the day though, it isn't the acting that is most memorable. Chayefsky's script is talky, detailed and literate, so full of long monologues that it becomes almost a speech in itself. Almost every character gets a shouting match, as if suggesting that this supposed dark satirical reality is merely another soap opera. Like all the best speeches though, there are memorable soundbites, ones that have resonated over the years as what may have seemed exaggerated and extreme at the time has mostly come true. Revisiting the film a quarter of a century after his first viewing, Roger Ebert described it as prophecy. 'When Chayefsky created Howard Beale,' he said, 'could he have imagined Jerry Springer, Howard Stern and the World Wrestling Federation?' Since then we've had the TV evangelists too, along with the reality craze and a whole slew of political commentators who rarely find any depths that they won't stoop to, regardless of which wing they ally themselves to.

The most memorable quotes naturally belong to Howard Beale, delivered to his fictional UBS television audience but, of course, also to we the viewers, watching his movie. 'You've got to get mad,' he shouts at us and you know the line he's building up to. The AFI voted it the 19th greatest quote of all time. He wants us to stick our heads out of the windows and shout, 'I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!' He repeats it, like a carny or a preacher, again and again until even Max Schumacher's daughter looks out the window to see if anyone is yelling, and finds that yes, they are. In massive numbers. All over the country. He becomes their shepherd and the people become his flock of sheep, something that only gets clearer over time and as his rants progress, until we reach a supreme irony.

'Less than three percent of you people read books,' he tells his audience. '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, an entire generation that never knew anything that didn't come out of this tube. This tube is the gospel, the ultimate revelation.' 'Listen to me! Television is not the truth. Television is a goddamn amusement park.' 'You're never gonna get any truth from us. We'll tell you anything you want to hear. We lie like hell!' 'We deal in illusions, man. None of it is true! But you people sit there day after day, night after night, all ages, colors, creeds...' 'You're beginning to think that the tube is reality and that your own lives are unreal. You do whatever the tube tells you.' 'This is mass madness. You maniacs!' 'So turn off your television sets.' 'Turn them off and leave them off. Turn them off right in the middle of this sentence I am speaking to you now. Turn them off!'

And he faints. And the jingles kick in on cue. And everyone stands up and cheers at the show. And as we laugh at how stupid they all are, we realise again that they are us.

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