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Network is the kind of film artists dream of creating. It's entertaining, powerful, smart and more than thirty years after it's release, it may be more relevant than the first time it was ever screened. The satirical tale of how the television news division of an ailing network is ethically and morally compromised through the exploitation of a major breakdown by it's lead anchor is prescient in ways that are astonishing to consider. It predicted the rise of "info-tainment," reality television and the kind of cult of personality related to both, as well as the deterioration of network news divisions through the profit motives of monolithic media conglomerates and the degree to which they would become harbingers of the message of global capitalism. It's the kind of satire that writers harbor secret dreams of being able to write, directors to direct and actors to perform. At turns funny, heartbreaking, harrowing, disturbing and grotesque, director Sidney Lumet and writer Paddy Chayefsky pulled from a considerable amount of experience in television and film together to create a masterpiece.
Sidney Lumet started off directing television in 1952. After directing a number of episodes for successful television series, he directed 12 Angry Men. It's a phenomenal meditation on the nature of justice in a deeply flawed society full of it's own prejudices and hatred and relying on deeply flawed individuals damaged in ways that can't be perceived on the surface. Lumet was nominated for Best Director that year (1957), and the film was nominated for Best Picture. It was also entered into the National Film Registry in 2007, but it was unfortunately a financial disaster and the last film Henry Fonda produced. Because 12 Angry Men had done so poorly in theaters, Lumet went back to television for a few years, and directed a few other relatively successful, but ultimately forgettable films until 1964's The Pawnbroker, starring Rod Steiger as a Holocaust/concentration camp survivor who's lost all faith and devolved to the most cynical state of human existence. It's a powerful drama, played out on the streets of East Harlem. It immediately resulted in Steiger becoming one of the most well thought of actors of his time and earned him an Academy Award nomination. The film is generally considered to be the first major American film to attempt to show what conditions in the concentrations camps of Germany were really like. It was entered into the National Film Registry in 2008. It's a film of crushing power and intensity, and also one of the first American films to attempt to deal with the Holocaust from a very specifically Jewish point of view. Without it, we may never have had Schindler's List or many of the other significant films which feature narratives dealing very directly with the Holocaust. It's also worth noting that The Pawnbroker was the very first film to ever have a woman's naked breasts and still get approval from the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (the precursor to the MPAA) under the still active Hays Code. Sidney Lumet was working within the studio system, and still succeeding to push the boundaries of what was accepted in "mainstream film" from very early on in his career.
Lumet's next film occupies a slightly more dubious place in cinema history. Fail-Safe (1964) was based on a novel of the same name which depicted a fictional nuclear crisis during The Cold War. Stanley Kubrick had originally set out to bring a version of a novel called Red Alert to screens not long before Fail-Safe was put into production. Red Alert became the basis for Dr. Strangelove, during the process of adapting the novel when Kubrick realized the inherent absurdity of the "mutually assured destruction" policy both The United States and The Soviet Union had. When Fail-Safe was announced, Kubrick and Columbia Pictures filed a plagiarism lawsuit against the production. Kubrick's complaint claimed that the novel Fail Safe plagiarized Red Alert. The suit was eventually settled out of court, but Fail-Safe was delayed by more than eight months, during which time Dr. Strangelove became a critical and box office success. Fail-Safe suffered as a result, because it was attempting to present as dramatic those events which had been so successfully skewered as absurd and ludicrous. All of that being said, Fail-Safe has been developing a following through the years and a reputation as being a solid, well acted and presented drama. If for no other reason, it's worth seeing for Henry Fonda and Walter Matthau's performances, as well as being able to see for one's self exactly how much of a similarity it holds to Strangelove.
Lumet wouldn't release another particularly significant film until 1973, when he first works with Al Pacino in Serpico. Based on real events, the film follows a New York City detective who attempts to enforce the law and navigate his way through an increasingly corrupt New York Police Department. Pacino had done The Godfather the prior year, and had become a hot commodity. Lumet, a New York native was able to bring out the underlying intensity of both New York and Pacino. It's still one of the most interesting and realistic projections of the reality of deep police corruption that's ever been committed to film. Serpico is the kind of film that launches the previously fledgling dreams of teenagers who want to be actors into full steam pursuits, dragging them all over the country from New York and L.A, and back.
In 1974, Lumet released two films. One, Lovin' Molly wasn't much of a critical or box office success. The studio believed that by following the same formula that had been used in making The Last Picture Show, getting a great director, top notch actors for the leads and populating the rest of the film with locals, it would be able to come out with a film as good and as successful. It didn't work.
The second film he released in 1974 revealed that Lumet could direct a lot more than the kind of intense, smoldering dramas he'd released up to that point. Murder on the Orient Express is a big screen adaption of an Agatha Christie novel of the same name. It's formulaic, in part because Christie helped to establish what that formula is, but it's an energetically fun film that sparks with a cast full of screen legends at the top of their game. Albert Finney gives what is quite possibly the best, but definitely the most unusual and courageous of a very long career. It was a financial success, and a successful homage to a different time in film history that is still entertaining and interesting. It's able to turn many of the cliché of the mystery genre into warm nostalgic reminders instead of musty, worn retreads. This was the first of three consecutive films that most directors would kill to be able to produce over a twenty or thirty year period.
Next, in 1975, Lumet re-teamed with Al Pacino and created what is quite possibly one of the most unusual, heartbreaking and entertaining bank robbery films of all time. Dog Day Afternoon is a thing to behold. Al Pacino is the lead who decides to rob a bank in order to pay for his male lovers sex change operation. Based roughly on true events, it took the box office and critical community by storm when it was released. It's definitely one of the two or three best performances of Pacino's career, one of the best films of Lumet's incredible career and one of the best films of that storied decade in film history, the 1970's. Everything in the film turns on a dime from one moment to another and it is able to change tone and emotion with an amazing dexterity and realism that seems like it should be impossible until it's seen. It's also among Pacino's best performances.
All of that lead up to Lumet's work with Paddy Chayefsky to create Network. Chayefsky had also spent a number of years working in television during what are often considered the "Golden Years" of the fifties and early sixties. By the time 1976 rolled around, he'd also been nominated for three Academy Awards for Best Writing or Screenplay and had won two for Marty and The Hospital, as well as two Prime Time Emmy Awards for his work in television. Like Lumet, he was already well respected and his name was capable of attracting big name talent to a project. It should be mentioned that Marty was a break out role for Ernest Borgnine, being the role that resulted in him being taken seriously as an artist and as an actor capable of carrying an entire movie as it's lead.
The two men would often later be quoted as saying that Network was not a work of satire, but a work of serious reportage from their days in television. The experience of the films writer and director shows and is one of the things that makes Network such a stand out artistic accomplishment. There are times in watching the film when it's genuinely hard to tell whether or not the content is actually part of the kind of reportage that comes from having been entrenched in the culture of an industry so long or whether it really is just brilliantly written, incredibly biting satire. That fact imbues the entire film with a sense of reality that is hard to come by, especially considering how absurd and broad some of the more blatant satire really is. The picture they paint is of an industry that is completely, unequivocally, morally bankrupt and without any sense of responsibility to anything or anyone beyond various forces driving the profit motive. It's a bleak vision of the future of television that ended up being closer to the truth than Chayefsky or Lumet could probably have had any right to expect. If they had, at the time, claimed they had divined the closest thing to the future of the most powerful medium of communication the world had ever seen at that time, both of them would have been laughed out of Hollywood and probably most of the country, ending up writing and directing dinner theater in resort towns.
Lumet has gained a reputation for being able to pull a level of performance out of actors they hadn't previously reached. Network is no different in that regard, and proves that hard won reputation to be well founded. Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Peter Finch and Robert Duvall are all giving performances that are engrossing, entertaining, somewhat sad and pathetic, but entirely full characters. William Holden was already a legend of the Silver Screen by the time Network came around, and considering how much of his career had been dedicated to much more conventional "leading man" fare, it's curious and an act worthy of respect for him to take a role that is in many ways the complete antithesis to that stereotype. More than anyone in the film, Holden seems lost and without an anchor to hold him steady. Even as his character is the moral center of the film, he's a deeply flawed, vulnerable character. Holden seems lost and without an anchor in part because he's surrounded by people who more than being morally flawed are willfully ignorant and deeply negligent in their actions. Holden comes across as someone, very understandably, stumbling around trying to gain his footing in the midst of the events put into motion by the rest of the characters. That's generally not a leading man role. A leading man role is generally a much more proactive character, not a character unable to match the other characters in the film. The problem being that in order to match those other characters or "best" them in the conventional sense, Holden's character would have to throw away all of the things that make him a decent man and a sympathetic character, despite his shortcomings. The other characters have no compunctions about morality. It's essentially an antiquated idea to them. The majority of the film is told from his perspective and Holden is perfect in conveying his sense of outrage, sadness, disdain, hurt, and sense of the absurd in the films events and in response to the films other characters. This performance is proof that William Holden was without question one of the most talented actors of his generation and it's somewhat unfortunate that he wasn't given more roles of this substance.
Faye Dunaway is both horrifying and hilarious as the up and animal of the network. She has some great, great lines and delivers some of the films most cynical and nihilistic dialog without batting an eye. The zeal she has for both success and for the power of the darker sides of the medium is intensely interesting and repulsive, in equal measure, often at the same moments. In many ways, her role has many more of the classical traits usually reserved for a leading mans character. She's ambitious, zealous, obsessed with her goals and what she perceives as victory, and single minded to a degree that the other characters she interacts with are only measure through which she achieves those things. They're the kind of traits audiences have been trained to applaud in male characters, be they featuring in dramas, action movies or the like. We're accustomed to the absolutely uncompromising hero being male and cheering for him. Interestingly, by giving those same traits to a female character and making it clear that she is an absolutely feminine character, Chayefsky, Dunaway and Lumet succeed in creating a whole different set of questions around gender specific social roles that are almost exclusively addressed by smaller, niche market independent films. By taking this perspective, the problems here aren't derived from gender, but from the kinds of expectations created of anyone, be they male or female, who attempts to succeed in ratings and monetary compensation in the network system. Dunaway's character isn't interested in being a man, taking on male traits or setting aside her femininity in favor of winning. She doesn't need to. All of that leaves the question of whether or not the kind of male gender roles we're used to seeing in films or television are specifically male or if they're more related to the way we understand success, leadership and ambition in narrative.
Then there's Peter Finch. Oh, Peter Finch. What can be said of the man who plays Howard Beale, The Mad Prophet of the Airwaves? Chayefsky's certainly makes it a role just about any actor would have loved to play, but Finch took it to lengths many others wouldn't have had the courage. Finch was catapulted into cinema history and will forever be remembered because of the role. He's given two of the more memorable monologues in screen history and is able to take the character careening around the dramatic cycle from hilarious to pathetic to enviable, sympathetic and to be a kind of genuine prophet of mass sentiment in nanoseconds. Howard Beale is the catalyst for the rest of the story. When he suffers what appears to be the beginnings of a nervous breakdown on the air, as the stations long time anchor man, the producers and heads of the news department immediately respond by pulling him off the air. The problem is that the rant that accompanies this near breakdown is a ratings bonanza for a network that's been suffering for a long time. When the executives from the corporate end of the network get involved and start pushing aside the news divisions presidents and producers, the story begins to roll. Faye Dunaway is the one who sees Beale as a gift from the ratings gods, Holden is his longtime friend, producer and news division big wig who is thinking about more than just the short term of ratings and advertising sales. He's thinking about the health of his friend and the morality of being a news division engaging in such sensationalistic behavior.
That's where Robert Duvall comes in. Duvall plays a hungry, ambitious network executive who has been pushing for changes in the news division because it doesn't produce revenue. It's a drain on the rest of the network. New is too expensive to produce for the amount of ad revenue it generates, and he wants to see changes and cuts to make sure the news division is also producing a profit. He's been at odds with Holden and the other news division executives for a while and when Dunaway comes to him guaranteeing she can take the debacle that is Howard Beale and create on of the most popular shows on television, he's the one responsible for giving it the green light and making sure it gets on the air.
It's also worth mentioning that Ned Beatty has a supporting as the head of the corporation that owns the network, and is given one of the other iconic speeches in film history, and he knocks it out of the park. It's a particularly hilarious and frighteningly prescient scene. It's another instance where Chayefsky's dialog succeeds in being discomforting because of how exquisitely well it was predicting the future of television and the rest of American society. Handled at all differently, and performed with any less comedic punch, it's a scene that would have been too on the nose in the way it encapsulates what the film is trying to say to the audience. Beatty's performance is over the top in a way that isn't self referential and annoying in the way a lot of current post modern sensitivies tend to be, but in a way that is brilliantly entertaining and hilarious. It's another example of the standard of satirical excellence that Network manages to reach.
In a world that is obsessed with reality television that cynically celebrates and exploits some of the worst in human behavior and instincts, and in which that behavior and those instincts are influenced to some degree by media that is increasingly ever present in the lives of the average person, Network was a warning of what was coming from people who were there in the beginning of mass medias capture of American culture.
Long before mass media became owned and controlled by six or nine different corporations (depending on exactly how one defines mass media), Network was a warning about what happens in a capitalist democracy when a medium of such power and cultural influence was used with no motive other than profit and without serious ethical questions being considered along the way. It also predicted the rise of the kind of angry, would be profit that much of our political programming has become on both television and radio. By taking a piece out of the past, Beale's persona is similar to that created by many regional preachers and radio personalities in the forties and fifties, most notably Father Coughlin, the difference being that Beale's sentiments are portrayed as being the product of genuine outrage, emotional overload and a kind of innocent naivete that none of the real movers, shakers and manipulators of the period could ever be realistically presented as.
By drawing on that history, Chayefsky managed to create a character that also predicted the future of broadcast television. Beale has as much in common with figures of the past as he does with the media pariahs of today. Watching and listening to Beale presents shades of Glenn Beck, Keith Olbermann and any number of other unhinged, professional loud mouths and doomsayers who've developed a parasitic relationship with what is an admittedly justifiable, but too often aimless popular rage with nothing to provide real motivation to address it's source. The major difference being that Beale actually attempts to draw attention to that relationship and attempts to get his audience to stop relying on himself or any other television source as their sense of morality or normalcy. That attempt begins the process of Beales undoing, because as Ned Beatty's character informs him, "You've meddled with the primal forces of nature Mr. Beale, and you must atone."
One of the other interesting aspects of the film is that Beale is as much a victim in the events of the film as anyone else, and Network, even as it's satire, is one of the first films to make an earnest and intelligent attempt at commenting on modern cultures approach to celebrity. There have been dozens of films which portray that relationship in a much more emotionally manipulative, simple minded way that sets up celebrity as a form of victim hood. Beale is definitely not the kind of victim portrayed in films like A Star is Born. Chayefsky succeeds in walking the line between the character being driven by his own impulses and madness, but also very obviously having enough sense of agency that in watching the film, the audience understands very clearly that even as the character is literally a victim and he has responsibility for his predicament, it's not at all so simple as being able to quickly and curtly deem Howard Beale as a man who got what he deserved. There are a few very clear choices that the character makes, and a whole lot of machinations he's not privy to.
In an era where photographers are constantly trying to get their lenses up the skirts of every celebrity stepping out of a car or in anything that could be construed as a compromising position (if framed in a perspective favorable to further clicks, news stand or grocery store sales), it's a rather important distinction to be drawn. Howard Beale might be mad as a hatter, and the public may embrace him because of the combination of his candor and his rage, but he's also very much a human being. The cynicism and morally bankrupt calculations that go into turning him into a cipher to suck up and transform popular rage into ad revenue might be the least fictional aspect of the story. The history of American media is littered with the bodies of people into whom one monolithic industry or another was able to entice the public to pour their dreams, hopes, fear or anger. Once that process is complete, and the production line that turns self destruction into dollars is running at full steam, it certainly seems like it can't be stopped. In today's world, we see this happening even more frequently and beginning even earlier. There are many different outlets and "journalists" covering celebrity, who have noted that so many of the current crop of time bomb celebrities started off at tender young ages with one or another media monolith, be it Disney or another, and have become the kind of emotional cripple and moral vacuum the rest of the culture likes to hold up in order to make their own moral failings and emotional frailties seem less potent. There are very few who have questioned the fact that starting to turn people into commodities at such a tender young age might be as responsible for that cycle as their parentage or anything else. Michael Jackson, Brittney Spears, and Lindsay Lohan all have something particular in common. They were children put through metamorphic process of becoming commodities, and those three are only the most currently recognizable names. Even slight interest in the subject can very quickly produce an alarmingly long list. Network draws that process into clear detail and doesn't directly address the audience responsibility for their part in it, yet it only takes the slightest consideration to understand that Faye Dunaway and Robert Duvall's characters may be the ones who set the process in motion and ultimately consummate the process, but that the participant in this entire process that is the engine and the fuel is the audience. In contemporary culture there's very little real consideration of the idea that the way our media currently works actually means turning people into products. It's not a symbolic or hypothetical process of dehumanization. It's blatant, shameless and without remorse. Network presents that fact in stark clarity.
It also avoids being a preaching polemic by focusing in on William Holden and Faye Dunaway's characters. The relationship between those characters brings everything that Network addresses into the realm of being more than a polemic and sociological conditions by being very deft, very smart and very realistic in the way it portrays those two characters. Even as the film succeeds so well as a broad, sweeping satire, part of the reason it succeeds in really grabbing hold of the viewer is due to the fact that it demonstrates very well how these larger forces and larger questions effect the individuals involved, and therefore in many ways, the people living in the society it's talking about. Somehow, Chayefsky, Lumet, Holden and Dunaway manage to make the characters archetypes while also making them 3 dimensional and whole. This may be the most rare kind of achievement in any form of storytelling, but especially in film because of their length in comparison to written fiction. A film, clocking in at a long running time of 3 hours would have much less time and ability to draw it's characters fully. The writing, performances and direction here are so strong that Network overcomes that limitation.
There's a definite traditionalist perspective on their relationship, but not from the gender perspective. Instead of referencing gender norms, it divides Holden and Dunaway's characters as being the pre-TV generation and the TV generation. Even as this is a sweeping, general indictment of televisions effects on the culture and society, it's as much a singular personal indictment of Dunaway's character being unable to see Holden as a real, flesh and blood human being instead of pawn in a plot that has to be wrapped up within the given time frame. In the way that her ambition to succeed in the business of television is her driving motivation, her character portrays what most of film and fiction have always understood to be masculine characteristics, without ever deluding her character with the kind of half baked psycho babble that suggests she really just wants to be a man. Her character has no problem with being a woman and is at home with the feminine. She's just a callous, calculating, dominating personality, acting on every perceived opportunity to further her success in the very twisted world of television. It's great writing, and two great performances.
In connection with that relationship, Beatrice Straight plays Holden's long time wife whom he leaves in order to carry on his affair with Dunaway. She probably has a total of ten minutes of screen time, and ended up walking away with an Academy Award for best supporting actress. The relationship between these two characters is portrayed from very much the same perspective as the relationship between Holden and Dunaway, and Straight's performance is a jaw dropper. As Holden calmly sits down to explain to his wife that he's having an affair, the beginning of the scene goes into very familiar territory, but ends up becoming something so much more than traditional melodrama would ever allow. Her character veers from angry, hurt, belligerent and horrified to deeply empathetic, caring, and just downright sweet. He may have hurt her, but what ends up shining through in a not at all disingenuous way is that she's really the better person in the entire situation, and not because she's a victim, but because she is honest, truthful and does actually care about his well being in spite of her heart being broken. Where almost all other films would have taken this opportunity and portrayed her as either some kind of vindictive harpy or as some kind of saintly victim, Straight imbues the character with real heart and real strength. Chayefsky had the good grace not to end the scene on some kind of phony high note either. She does the completely sensible thing of throwing him out, but she does so as much because he's being as irresponsible with his own well being as she is with hers, and that she understands that sometimes, people make bad decisions and hurt each other without necessarily being bad people. All of this is conveyed in Straight's performance, in a matter of minutes. It's quite possibly my favorite "marital strife" scene in cinema history, and that's a kind of scene that's gotten one hell of a lot of screen time.
When I really think about just how well Network is constructed as a narrative, how well the dialog is written, how natural it feels in spite of being a satire, that every single performance is outstanding, and just how prophetic it is in what it's trying to say, I have to hesitate, because the only phrase I can really come up with to do it justice is that it's a "miracle of cinema." This is the rarest kind of excellence and of such a high quality that it is both intimidating and almost awe inspiring.