June 28, 2010

#64: Network

"This story is about Howard Beale, who was the network news anchorman on UBS Television."

Back to 1976, which we've already visited in the form of All the President's Men, and which we'll soon see in Rocky and Taxi Driver. But for today: Network. The screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky and the director Sidney Lumet allegedly would not classify this dark intelligent thriller as a satire because, in their words, it was a reflection of what was really happening. In other words, take it seriously.

Company: just me again.

Cuisine: white wine and Blazin' Buffalo & Ranch Doritos. A classy combination.

What begins as a joke between Howard Beale (Peter Finch, the first posthumous Oscar winner) and his boss, Max Schumacher (William Holden) about the news anchor featuring "suicides of the week" or "executions of the week" becomes a dark reality when Beale, facing his own termination in two weeks time, announces on the live news broadcast that he will blow his brains out on the air. At first, no one even notices, and a first-time viewer might even miss it, but once they and we notice, all hell breaks loose. Obviously we're coming into the story of Howard Beale at its tail end, as he's been the lead anchor on UBS for twenty-five years, and he's seen quite a bit. And he's being fired for bad ratings... but is it he or the world which has gone to shit? As it turns out, both.

Don't ever trust anyone with that much crazy on her face, especially not if it's Faye Dunaway.

Thanks to Diana Christenson, an unflailingly ambitious vice president in charge of programming for the network (Oscar winner Dunaway), the guys pulling Beale out of that chair slowly move to push him back into it, and eventually strap him to it. Christenson (ironically named for playing God with Beale) sees an opportunity for ratings, her life blood. "Americans are turning sullen," she says, because of "Vietnam, Watergate, inflation, the recession ... concept analysis says the American people want someone to articulate their rage. I want angry shows. I want counterculture. I want antiestablishment." While the folks running the show aren't necessarily happy with Beale's increasingly bleak and rampant diatribes being broadcast live, many can't disagree with him.

"He's saying that life is bullshit, and it IS. So what are you screaming about?"

Beale is sheltered from the media. Beale goes on the air and spouts his "insane" ramblings, as "a modern-day prophet denouncing the hypocrisies of our times." Beale goes missing. Beale stumbles in from the rain, and at a moment's notice, everyone in the studio, knowing how important it is for him to get back on the air, shoves him behind the desk with no makeup and no filter. What transpires is below.

Watch that and tell me you didn't get the shivers. Ooosh.

In the spirit of this blog, I don't want to spoil too much of what happens next, but suffice it to say, events escalate and crumble, and everything ends the only way it can, which may not be the way you thought it would at first, and yet it all seems terribly fitting.

Network is one of those rare films that transcends its subject matter to become about even more than what it's about. Roger Ebert once said, "A film is not about what it's about. It's about how it is about it." Every element of the film works, and it's even more amazing because it's an original screenplay: there was no test run of this story in book or stage form, and it wasn't based on true events (necessarily), so there was no marker of how audiences would react. But each actor delivers. Dunaway speaks so fast because she has to. She's a woman whose ultimate dream is "a 30 share and a 20 rating." Finch is given the task of making Howard Beale into a mad genius instead of a rambling maniac, and he achieves it somehow. Holden, Robert Duvall and company all do amazing work, including:

... Beatrice Straight, as Schumacher's wife, whose devastating performance at five minutes and 40 seconds is still the shortest to win an Oscar (and you can see why) ...

... and Ned Beatty (the fifth of the Oscar nominees from the cast ... fifth!), who only worked a day on the film for his role as Arthur Jensen, chairman of a company whose purchase of UBS has the power to change Beale's message. But as Jensen's corporate cosmology dictates, "there are no nations in the world, there is no America, there is no democracy. There is only IBM and ITT, and AT&T ..." His performance is nearly as brief as Straight's, and just as powerful.

"You're television incarnate. Indifferent to suffering, insensitive to joy. All of life is reduced to the common rubble of banality. War, murder, death: all the same to you as bottles of beer, and the daily business of life is a corrupt comedy. You even shatter the sensations of time and space into split seconds, instant replays ... you're madness, Diana, and everything you touch dies with you. But not me. Not as long as I can feel pleasure and pain and love."

God. No one writes like that anymore. Are we past the point where intelligent, even poetic dialogue like this is acceptable for our onscreen characters? Will we believe that someone actually talks like this in complete thoughts. Imagine Kristen Stewart mustering up all her might to blandly deliver this monologue. A shame. But we'll always have Network.

Ahh. A fine film. A fine, fine ending.

Next up: life is a Cabaret, ol' chum.

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