Saturday, April 9, 2011

Network (1976)

          There’s a reason why sophisticated contemporary screenwriters from Billy Ray to Aaron Sorkin bow at the feet of playwright-screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky, and the script that best exemplifies that reason is Network, Chayefsky’s audacious satire about a TV personality who becomes a pop-culture phenomenon by going insane while America watches. By the mid-’70s, Chayefsky was a veteran dramatist with credits dating back to the ’50s heyday of live TV, and his reputation was such that his words reached the screen more or less untouched. For Network, Chayefsky let loose with all of his literary powers, constructing an outrageous plot, symbolic characters, and wordplay so dense and dexterous that each monologue is like a high-wire act.
          Network is filled with such esoteric verbiage as “multivariate” and “sedentarian,” and the ideas the script presents are as elevated as the language. In the story, network-news anchorman Howard Beale (Peter Finch) gets sacked for low ratings, then responds by announcing on air that he plans to commit suicide. His stunt triggers a ratings spike, but concerns his deeply principled boss and best friend, news-division chief Max Schumacher (William Holden). An ambitious executive from the network’s entertainment division, Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway), sees an opportunity to exploit Beale’s breakdown. Backed by Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall), the omnivorous lieutenant of the corporation that just bought the network, Diana seizes control of the nightly news broadcast and turns it into a circus act featuring crazies like Howard and “Sybil the Soothsayer.”
          Concurrently, Diana makes a deal with a terrorist organization to film its insurrectionist crimes, so before long the network’s top two shows are the vulgar “news” show and the brazen “Mao Tse Tung Hour.” Firmly situated as the story’s drowned-out voice of reason, Max is briefly seduced by the lure of slick sensationalism—he ends up in Diana’s bed even though he’s married—but once he comes to his senses, all he can do is bear witness as primetime becomes a madhouse.
          Director Sidney Lumet, unobtrusively serving Chayefsky’s script, tells the story with methodical precision, orchestrating a handful of astonishing performances. Finch gets the showiest role, ranting through moments like the famous “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” speech; the actor died just before receiving an Oscar for the role. Holden, his once-gleaming features ravaged by years of drinking, is a vivid personification of an idealist-turned-cynic, and his runs through long speeches are as graceful as they are muscular. Dunaway, burdened with the most overtly symbolic characterization in the piece, is so chillingly soulless that she makes the contrivances of her role seem necessary and urgent. Duvall, adding an almost Biblical degree of rage to his previously muted screen persona, is layered and terrifying. And Ned Beatty, who pops in for a cameo as Duvall’s boss, blows away any memories of his usual bumbling characters by portraying a sociopathic corporate overlord.
          Network is filled with nervy scenes, like the vignette of network executives negotiating a contract with gun-toting terrorists, and the climax is thunderous. And although it comes awfully close, Network isn’t perfect; some scenes, like Max’s confrontation with his wronged wife (Beatrice Straight), are overwritten to mask their triteness, and Max’s final monologue to Diana summarizes the picture in a manner that’s contrived, obvious, and unnecessary. But even in that scene, arguably the most film’s laborious, Chayefsky’s language is intoxicating: In the course of excoriating the reductive nature of television, Max laments that “all of life is reduced to the common rubble of banality.” Especially since most of Chayefsky’s bleak predictions about television have come true since Network was released, this profound film has lost none of its elemental power.


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