Monday, March 4, 2013

Movie Review: "Network" by David Pretty

Network proves that it's possible to love a movie despite hating some of its artistic choices.  Even though  I'm not one to tub-thump for remakes I really wish that a talented writer/director team would take the heart and soul of this film and transplant it into a fresh, modern body.  The world desperately needs this sort of forward-thinking genius but I fear that contemporary audiences will see the original and be turned off by some very legitimate issues.

Peter Finch plays Howard Beale, the aging television anchorman for the UBS Evening News.  After a slight ratings dip, Beale is given his walking papers and immediately becomes despondent.  Even after his spirits are buoyed up somewhat by his old ally Max Schumacher (played with great command by William Holden), Beale is still crushed that he's been discarded in such an off-handed manner.  During his next broadcast he casually threatens to kill himself live on air before he’s dragged off camera. 

Although he’s immediately sacked, Beale gets a second chance to bow out gracefully when Max comes to his defense.  Contrary to his sworn promise, however, Beale completely wigs out on-air again and delivers a fiery and damning critique of modern society.  The twist is, when the suits get wind of his rating the following day they discover that Beale’s viewership has gone through the roof. 

Schumacher tries his best to prevent the network pimps from exploiting his friend but the deck is firmly stacked against him.  Between the efforts of an conscienceless, ratings-hungry executrix (Faye Dunaway) and a ethically-bankrupt studio boss (Robert Duvall), Beale is given his own show and reborn as “The Mad Prophet of the Airwaves.”  

UBS continues to ride the gravy train even as Beale becomes more and more erratic and volatile.  Eventually the Mad Prophet goes rogue, blowing the whistle on a shady foreign interest deal to purchase the station and costing the studio heads a fortune.  The fallout from this starts to shift the film into the realm of black comedy. 

First off, let me catalog what I liked.  To see television used as a delivery system for an awakening versus its current incarnation as the opiate of the masses would be enough to make Marshall McLuhan sit up and take notice.  The fact that the film presaged exploitative schlock like Morton Downey Jr., Jerry Springer and reality programming is remarkable enough, but the scene in which the owner of the studio (played by Ned Beatty) lectures Beale over his crusade is particularly prescient.  Just check out this ballsy bit of social commentary:

“There is no America.  There is no democracy.  There is only IBM, and ITT, and AT&T, and DuPont, Dow, Union Carbide, and Exxon.  Those are the nations of the world today.” 

The performances are absolutely fantastic, particularly Finch as Beale.  His firebrand rant, featuring the now-famous “I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!" is pure electricity.  When he incites viewers nation-wide to scream this mantra out their windows you can't help but but hope and pray that Brian Williams, Diane Sawyer and Scott Pelley have similar epiphanies some evening.  

Unfortunately, there are some story deviations so ill-conceived that they actually derail the main thrust of the plot and strain credibility.  To this day, I still can't fathom why the script shoehorns Diana and Max together.  Perhaps screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky was trying to make some point about Diana’s father complex, the general instability of relationships in the Seventies or the growing lack of empathy amongst human beings, but frankly I found the whole thing to be rather contrived and kinda icky. 

The screenplay also suffers from what I like to refer to as "writers ego".  Paddy Chayefsky may have won an Oscar for this script but there are a lot of instances when he's trying way too hard to be clever.  Many times I was taken out of the film because I didn't feel as if I was watching a genuine exchange between real people.  Instead, the characters felt like puppets at the whim of a self-absorbed screenwriter.  The scenes between Diana and Max as well as Max and his estranged wife (played by Cindy Grover) really sounds hollow to my ear, as if it was written by a playwright enamored by his own wit. 

The overwrought dialogue also bleeds into the performances.  Given all of this tempting incendiary ammunition both Robert Duval and Ned Beatty are guilty of lapsing into moments of unrestrained scenery-chewing.  This is a pity since the film's legitimate and important points are sometimes overshadowed by needless bombast.  It cheapens the message and makes it easier for the audience to dismiss these legitimate issues as if they're watching an Alex Jones video. 

By the time the network adds a domestic terrorist cell to their payroll as "creative consultants" the film has already begun to slip into the realm of parody.  But, hey, why not?  There are things on T.V. right now that make The Mao Tse-Tung Hour look like Meet The Press in comparison. 

In spite of a few ill-conceived choices, Network is still a very special film that cries out for like-minded company. 

   Tilt: up.

1 comment:

  1. I agree wholeheartedly with your opening paragraph - since the idea of this film is so brilliant, this is one I wouldn't mind seeing remade, right.