Friday, October 04, 2013

Network (1976)

USA, 121 minutes
Director: Sidney Lumet
Writer: Paddy Chayevsky
Photography: Owen Roizman
Music: Elliott Lawrence
Editor: Alan Heim
Cast: Peter Finch, William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Robert Duvall, Ned Beatty, Beatrice Straight, Wesley Addy, Kathy Cronkite, Lee Richardson, Arthur Burghardt

Network is one of those movies with a not undeserved reputation for getting things right, large and small. But first and more than anything it is an acting showcase, cast almost perfectly, built around stellar performances (at least six by my count), realized via Sidney Lumet, a director deeply simpatico with the art. Then it lucked into one of those defining iconic things, which defined it, ultimately outgrew and overshadowed it in many ways, in the catch phrase, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not gonna take it anymore," writer Paddy Chayevsky's nearly perfect mantra of learned helplessness, resonating more than ever today. I'm willing to bet it's a feeling familiar to anyone reading this. The reverberation of that sense is one of the great surprises and enduring pleasures of this picture.

Full disclosure: I didn't much like Network at the time of its release. I thought it was too broad and obvious, and was put off by the highfalutin corporate vocabulary, even more by what I perceived as satire that was simply too easy. I didn't believe it. But seeing it decades later brought a shock of recognition, in its pitch-perfect sense of corporate environment and notably in its anticipation of those tabloid talk shows we got from Oprah Winfrey and Jerry Springer, all stocked with armies of raging plain folks and the depressing sense their motivations were just shallow, or incoherent—and certainly manipulated. Or, as Yeats described the situation some time ago, "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity."

Sometimes I think TV is such a profound shift in human history it's almost too big to grasp. Because everything around us has been changed by it, it may seem that nothing has changed. Network was jumping up and down shrieking about this nearly 40 years ago and is still doing so today. The urgency remains. This is where Chayevsky's ingenuity and insights, his master plan as it were, start to become so impressive. It's satire but there is a peculiar (and peculiarly human, in the context) romance at the heart of it, between Max Schumacher (William Holden), the old-school TV news man of the '50s, and Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway), the brash new kid on the corporate block, 20 years or more his junior. The relationship, as written and performed, is somehow tender and believable even in the maelstrom of swirling, bizarre events.

Holden and Dunaway pull this off with powerful and well matched performances. They are both playing characters well over 50% preening narcissist each, yet they both have hearts and are tremendously likable, even charismatic. Beatrice Straight as Schumacher's estranged wife Louise further grounds this thread in a stunning breakup scene. It is nicely modulated relief to the circus antics of Howard Beale and the various corporate boardrooms, as comical and entertaining as they are—and they are very comical and entertaining. Chayevsky circles back even with this romance, shrewdly probing the impact of television in the generational differences between Schumacher and Christensen.

It's also a very funny movie, of course, reading corruption willy-nilly into everything. At one point a group of underground American terrorists, a '70s trope and so the natural stars of what would now be called a reality TV show, developed by Christensen, called The Mao Tse-tung Hour (and here I pause to savor ... the show has nothing whatever to do with Mao Tse-tung, which is nice in itself, but I particularly love that "Hour")—these ragtag terrorists, in their berets and camo and bearing arms, hunkered in their poorly lighted basement, are haggling over the terms of a contract with a team of network lawyers hunched into folding chairs in a semicircle. One of the terrorists lashes out in frustration as the negotiations begin to militate against her: "The Communist Party's not gonna see a nickel out of this goddamn show until we go into syndication."

Sleek and corporate, in Network everyone knows how to talk the talk of the TV business. Here is Christensen exclaiming over the potential of Howard Beale, even as he declines into dementia: "By tomorrow he'll have a 50 share, maybe even a 60. Howard Beale is processed instant God and right now it looks like he may just go over bigger than Mary Tyler Moore!" Everyone is dressed professionally and they all know their way around the warrens of offices and desks and windows and cityscapes. It has a decided middle-aged vibe, a marked, almost stark, departure from more typical youth concerns of popular culture in movies of all eras. Christensen is the kid in this picture and she's in her mid-30s. Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall), in his 40s, is also a youth. As usual, Duvall is quietly excellent as a bullying, toadying corporate cockroach, forever scheming and surviving and moving on up.

"Shares" and "ratings" and "points" and playing the game are what it's all about, and in perfect comic fashion everyone here understands that—even the Communist Party. But it's still helpful to include the extraordinary scene with Ned Beatty, who thunders in impressive fashion (I hardly suspected he was capable of such a turn, and indeed in some fleeting moments you see how he appears to be at the furthest extremes of his own talent), explicitly declaiming the vision, mission, strategy, and tactics of what we would now call "the 1%." It's really chilling, and perhaps the single most prescient element in a movie that now seems full of them. The result of it, the failure of Beale to put across his message, in turn becomes one of the funniest developments in the whole thing.

Network is a rich and robust stew, moving easily and credibly from corporate buffoonery to affairs of the heart to incisive social commentary. Both Chayevsky and Lumet spent many years in television and obviously know the territory well—that shows in the intricate setups of the various television production scenes, even more in the organic way in which so many scenes and situations are conceived and develop. It has performances on the career-best short lists for Ned Beatty, Faye Dunaway, Robert Duvall (and that's saying something), Peter Finch, William Holden (yes, one of his best too), and Beatrice Straight. And it's sharply funny. I love it.

Top 10 of 1976
Taxi Driver is one of my all-time favorites so that gets pride of place for this year, and somehow I thought Eraserhead was 1976 rather than the 1977 shown on IMDb but I am including it because it's top 10 for any year for me (for those tracking closely, I would put it just ahead of Suspiria on my '77 list). Marathon Man was an obsession that still works pretty well for me. Harlan County and Josey Wales I've only seen for the first time in recent years. A pretty good year, I'd say: beyond these are still Carrie, The Omen, The Bad News Bears, The Man Who Fell to Earth, and 1900. Once again, the "didn't like so much" picks I actually like, they are just slight matters of being underwhelmed, or maybe I need to revisit. Hey, next year there will be some movies I hate, I promise.
1. Taxi Driver
2. Network
3. Eraserhead
4. Marathon Man
5. The Tenant
6. Harlan County, U.S.A.
7. All the President's Men
8. The Outlaw Josey Wales
9. Don's Party
10. Rocky

Didn't like so much: Bound for Glory; Face to Face; Next Stop, Greenwich Village; Small Change; Welcome to L.A.

Gaps: Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson; The Killing of a Chinese Bookie; Kings of the Road; The Marquise of O...; Obsession

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