Saturday, August 08, 2009

Network


After many years, I finally caught up with the movie, Network. I'd always heard it was worth seeing, but missed it first time around, and had never seen it anywhere since. The good old Warehouse was selling a few copies off in a sale yesterday, so I grabbed it.

If you don't like talkie movies, it's not the movie for you. This one is dialogue-packed (as opposed to action-packed), and the dialogue is great. (You can pick up a load of the lines on IMDB's quotes page for this movie, but one I liked that isn't there is: Inflexible? He's not only inflexible, he's intractable and adamantine. That may not be quite exact, but it's pretty close. Nobody uses 'adamantine' in real life, but it's wonderful in the context.)

It's a bit long, but then we've gotten so used to movies that are short and sharp in style, if not in actual length, that we can sometimes struggle with a movie that takes its time to say all it wants to say. For me the ending was a bit underdone; but perhaps the actual ending wasn't the climax; it's possible the real climax was when Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) and Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall) not only talk with absolute coolness about the need to kill Howard Beale (Peter Finch), the mad prophet of the network, but decide to have it done the next night, and to use their nasty (and contracted to the Network) terrorist group to do it, and to do it live on television.

It's an horrifically satirical film, though it's not often laugh-out-loud funny. Many of the lines have time-bombs in them, and you have to listen closely for the honesty and scurrilousness they contain in about equal measure.

The cast is uniformly superb - though given the script they're working with, that's hardly surprising. Good actors will always rise to an excellent script. And the smaller parts are played with as much authority as the big: Ned Beatty doesn't turn up until late in the movie, but gets to give an extraordinary monologue on how the world is really run (as a business, of course). And an actress who is entirely unknown to me, Beatrice Straight, has little more than one big scene, and is so strong in it she almost wipes the much better known actor, William Holden, out of the picture. Apparently Straight received a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her brief performance, which lasts all of five minutes, in a two hour movie.

Finch, Holden and Dunaway, along with Duvall, carry the movie, sweeping through the scenes with huge impact. Holden, if anything, looks too old for the part he plays, though he was only 58 at the time, (by my calculations. 58 is middle-aged these days, but back in 1976 it was old.). He's playing a middle-aged man, someone who has an infatuation with a younger woman in a kind of male menopause moment. The fault may be less Holden's, who does the part with huge integrity, than Paddy Chayefsky's. Chayefsky, the writer, pushes the Holden and Dunaway characters together in a slightly forced way. I don't think it quite works, and we never really believe that Holden is infatuated with Dunaway, partly because there's a long gap between their first fling and their getting together on a more permanent basis.

Finch is an isolated character. Although he's best friends with Holden, they don't have many scenes to establish this, and about a third of the way through the movie, Finch's scenes are almost all on his own, as he rants at the world via the television. We lose track of what's really going on in his head. But Finch is superb, for all that. He's given several long speeches throughout the movie, and each one is played for all it's worth, with great variety of tone, and pace. The curious thing is that by the end of the movie we're beginning to wonder if he too isn't playing the crowd for all it's worth, rather than continuing to speak honestly.

Chayefsky doesn't explain everyone's motives; he lets their ambiguity be, so that we have to think about what's going on behind the characters' eyes.

The high point of the movie - the kind of climax of the first act, as it were - is when Beale first rages at the television world, and insists viewers should lean out their windows and shout, "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!". It's an extraordinary scene, and could have come across just as comedy. It is funny, but not because of people sticking their heads out windows, or standing on balconies, shouting. It's funny and sad at the same time, because here are people who, as Beale says, are living their lives through the false world of television, and yet, because of television, are shouting that they're not going to take it anymore. It reverberates in all sorts of ways.

Roger Ebert has two different reviews of this movie, one from the movie's original release date, when he finds some faults with it, and one from 2000, by which time it's become a classic of its time. And James Berardinelli, (whom, I discovered the other day, one of my good friends thinks is 'bland' - at least I think that was the word he used) wrote a review in 1998 - okay it's not bland, but I'll concede it's not particularly inspiring either(!)
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