XX: Network
(USA, 1976; dir. Sidney Lumet; scr. Paddy Chayefsky; cin. Owen Roizman)
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The MGM lion has hardly stopped roaring when Paddy Chayefsky starts, in the chattery, clenched opening of Network—quite well directed by Sidney Lumet, but still Chayefsky's movie through and through. The first character whose acquaintance we make is Peter Finch's Howard Beale, a fantastically depressed anchorman who will hardly go softly into that good night, and who in fact teeters with drunken abandon on the lip of a total breakdown. Apropos Howard, our unknown narrator confides that in 1970, "His wife died and he became a childless widower with an 8 rating and a 12 share." We haven't even hit the opening titles yet when an offhand comment from Howard's friend and producer Max Schumacher gives him the idea that, were he to blow his brains out on air, seated right at this newsdesk, the network would score at least a 50 share. The next night, Howard pledges to do just this: "Since this show was the only thing I had going for me in my life, I have decided to kill myself." Peter Finch, as Howard, delivers the lines with almost jocular aplomb. No one in the sound booth or at the editing console even notices, at least not right away.

Network wastes no time barreling right into its scabrous satire of an abscessed national media, of middle-age panic and youthful zealotry, of sensational diversions that conceal the corporate racket, of how a graduated mid-life apoplexy, perhaps outright insanity, nonetheless passes for messianic enlightenment in a world that's this far gone. Network remains prescient, urgent, hilarious, and relevant today, almost 30 years after its debut, and it's of course profoundly sad that this is the case. It's easy to lament the fact that post-Y2K television has promulgated so many programs that would have slid quite nicely into the deranged rubric of The Howard Beale Show. Bill O'Reilly is scantily less crazy than Howard Beale, speaking only of his contempt for corroborated fact and his perpetual state of spoiled-child ire, not about his politics. The endless procession of Survivors and Idols and Models and Millionaires are even more vapid than Sybil the Soothsayer, the rumored but never-heard Vox Populi, and other Guignol series and spinoffs that Chayefsky devises for his fictional UBS. More harrowing is the fact that Network actually strikes much closer to the angry red iron of what's really going wrong—the transnational corporations duping their own senior staffs and worshipping the dollar in a quite literal way—than do the endless contemporary editorials about the atrophied content of today's TV. Content is just a symptom. As Faye Dunaway's brazenly cloven-hoofed Diana Christensen yells at a Marxist, terrorist-affiliated demagogue-for-hire, "I don't give a damn about the political content of the show!" So little damns are given in this movie, I feel sure I'd have spotted one, had the occasion ever arisen.

What Network does give a damn about is the entire plane of mid-1970s wrongdoing and woe, one that explains and forever exceeds the ideological malfeasance we're seeing in the network offices and on their screens. Depression, recession, civil wars, White House corruption, balkanized liberal dissent, skyrocketing oil prices, racial ghettoization, white-collar auction blocks, conveniently blurred lines between bureaucratic divisions like "News" and "Programming." In synthesizing these trends, if only by angrily, commodiously tatting them together in furious unison, the movie far exceeds the kind of simple "Will TV tell the truth or won't it?" provenance of a sleeker, shallower film like this fall's Good Night, and Good Luck. Meanwhile, Owen Roizman's camerawork, careening into Weimar-era, M-style canted angles in the establishing shots on the network offices—and again during the immortal, mid-film "Mad as Hell" interlude—draws its own implicit analogies about where the country is heading.

Having said all that, Network is not a perfect movie, and is in fact consistently overrated. Chayefsky's fascination with his own highbrow vocabulary declaws as many scenes as it assists. The film's worst judgment has always to do with the William Holden's Max, whose banal and moony marital transgressions never feel like more than an excuse to give Dunaway something else to act besides her possession by the Nielsen demons. The root network of Holden's scenes mostly subsist of the chauvinist and youth-phobic moral favor Chayefsky quite arbitrarily cedes to him over Dunaway, and also the script's quavering unwillingness to recognize that Howard is actually right about individual lives and personal qualms being utterly, almost comically irrelevant to the kind of world Network so sagely describes. At some point in my viewing history, Network has passed from a movie I admired without liking to a movie I enjoy tremendously without quite admiring it so much as I used to. Over-the-top, out and proud, even when it could stand to hold back or trim down a little, Network does what Dunaway tells us Sybil the Soothsayer does: the film oraculates. Still, the fierceness with which it both demands and holds our attention, all these decades later, makes it always worth another re-run.

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