Saturday, May 1, 2010

Network: Transmission Problems

Not only is Network considered one of the seventies' many classic films, but for months two people whose opinion I generally respect have also been urging me to watch it. I heard that the film was prophetic, topical, and blackly humorous. So when I sat down to finally watch the film last night, I expected to love it. Alas, I can't say that I appreciated the film nearly as much as I expected.

Network, though thirty-four years old, still occasionally appears in discussions about popular culture and television. Not surprising, given that yesterday's satirical nightmare has become today's accepted reality. Howard Beale (Peter Finch) is the old-guard news anchor at UBS, the eponymous television network. His wife's dead, he's drinking too much, and his ratings are nonexistent. When the corporate suits, generally represented by the cynical and obnoxious Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall), decide to drop his show, Beale retaliates by announcing that he will end his tenure at UBS by killing himself on air. Beale's best friend Max (William Holden) rightly thinks the anchor needs mental help, but "television incarnate," the cynical VP of programming, Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) decides to keep the lunatic on air – he's damn good for the ratings. Diana, ascendant after Beale's runaway success, is soon adding soothsayers and game show sets to the news show and in talks with a communist militant group that would just love their own television show.

Both Bill O'Reilly and Glenn Beck have reflected on their similarities to Howard Beale; as they aren't entirely film literate, they seem to think their resemblances a positive thing. Beale's punditry is paranoid and preacher-esque; he's clearly insane. Peter Finch deserved the Oscar he won for this picture, but I can't help but think that the script lets him down. While his rants are entertaining the first few times we hear them, it's hard to believe that anyone would tune in night after night to watch the man – Finch is too believable as a lunatic to be acceptable as a showman. His madness grates on the nerves; even in the exaggerated comic world of Network, I could not accept his success.

Perhaps I'm less cynical than screenwriter, Paddy Chayefsky? There are some nice rants about television and the evils of "the tube," but surely this is a case of the pot calling the kettle black? Television's vices are hardly distinct from film's. Indeed, the first news shows were the current events reels, and surely vapid police procedurals and war stories descend from old cinematic serials? I suppose that when one is "as mad as hell" – as this film is – such distinctions don't come easily.

For a film about the dumbing down of culture, Network has far too many bits of clumsy exposition. There are some great and entertaining speeches that would nonetheless be far better were they far shorter. Equally frustrating is the characters' habit of inserting narration into their conversations: "In the ten months since CCA..." "We've lived together six months..." "I've been an anchor for..." Surely there's a better way to impart information to the audience. The film actually possesses an omniscient narrator, but his appearances are few and far between. I would have preferred a few more voiceovers to the intrusive and forced dialogue. Finally, I'm not sure that Network really coheres as a film – while cruel and satiric all the way through, the film has an unpleasant tendency to shuffle between dry and zany black humor. Network is never quite sure what it wants to be; its pieces never quite fit together. The ending should be a triumph of morbid humor, but instead seems forced and tacked on.

Network's actors do their best with an uneven script. Though Peter Finch's performance is the film's most famous, I thought that Faye Dunaway was far more entertaining. With her fast talk, cold wit, and cynicism, she's a sort of screwball antiheroine. She's a remarkably energetic presence, especially when contrasted with her costars, most of whom are tired and middle-aged men. William Holden's Max Schumaker may be old-fashioned and out-of-date, but he's also the film's moral voice, the only principal who even approaches decency. Unlike everyone around him, he still knows how to feel shame.

For all that it's a fine, important and historic film, I didn't especially like Network. It's entertaining and funny, but the script is a mess and has a tendency to undermine the movie's best aspects. This should have been a great film, but instead it turned out an OK one. Sometimes great performances and good directing can't make up for mediocre writing.

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