Primal Screen: Sidney Lumet’s Network (1976) – Blu-ray review
Can Lumet’s classic satire survive now that nobody watches TV anymore? Well, yes – because there’s still plenty to be mad as hell about.
(Sidney Lumet, 1976)
Read any blog on the future of television over the past year or so and you’d be forgiven for thinking that the era of network television is fading fast, usurped by the ‘on demand’ paradigm of Netflix and co. Does that mean, then, that Sidney Lumet and Paddy Chayefsky’s corrosive satire of network ideology is now a museum piece?
That’d be ironic; for the past four decades, Network has been celebrated for its unusual prescience, as Chayefsky’s screenplay predicted the future as surely as Sybil the Soothsayer does in the film. Outrageously fantastical in 1976, today it feels like a documentary about the past few decades, during which the small-screen became controlled by corporations, hypocritically driven by ratings and revenues and turned news into a debased, lowest-common-denominator carnival. It’s a brilliant film, bar the nagging doubt it might actually have given somebody the idea for Fox News.
So the timing of Arrow’s exemplary Blu-ray is interesting to say the least. Much of the film’s snobbery – especially regarding its vision of TV drama as creatively threadbare and formulaic – is baffling; these days a cast this good, speaking dialogue that good, would be more likely to be found on HBO. Indeed, the subplot about the creation of a series eulogising the outlaw antics of political terrorists – a bleak joke in 1976 – now feels like something that would happily co-exist with Breaking Bad.
So is Network passing from prescience to antiquity? Not really, because the film was always such a tangle of ironies and ideas it remains inexhaustible. At its centre lies a still-messy, still-enthralling ambiguity about its subject. On the one hand, it’s one of the most potent poison-pen letters ever green-lit by a major Hollywood studio, a two-hour fuck you to its small screen sibling that takes the high ground to survey the gutter while avoiding the stench. On the other, don’t forget that Lumet and Chayefsky were men of television, raised in the early, golden days remembered by embattled news boss Max Schumacher (William Holden).
In an era dominated by young directors weaned on European art-house films, Network is lasting proof (alongside the films of Robert Altman) that 70s Hollywood also tapped into the tradition of American television. The ensemble acting and dialogue-driven plot bear an unmistakable lineage to the director and writer’s work in the 1950s; Lumet’s direction is a turbo-charged distillation of the ‘live’ recording of those days, using the movement of the actors to dictate his camera placement.
Then there’s the tension between Chayefsky and Lumet themselves. Another director would have indulged the writer’s long monologues, whereby the characters (especially Holden) are clearly mouthpieces for Chayefsky’s caustic views and it’d be easy to envisage a version of Network done in a heightened, artificial style. Instead, crucially, Lumet grounds things. Never content to trust to the script’s on-the-nose reflections on how much life is like a script, Lumet creates a plausible space between the characters’ “performances” and the flickers of self-knowledge (okay, mainly self-disgust) in their downtime, everybody knowing deep down that they’re peddling a lie. Meanwhile, Owen Roizman’s utilitarian camerawork hangs back far enough from the action to observe the totality, where the TV cameras and bustling worker bees create a vivid eco-system whose verisimilitude offsets, subverts and heightens Chayefsky’s metaphors.
Lumet is primarily an actor’s director and he works incredibly hard here to ensure that his ace cast achieves endless variations on the film’s dissection of the muddled gap between reality and fakery. It’s there in the telltale body language of hard-ass Robert Duvall, forever scratching his bald head in insecure helplessness; the sudden bathetic switch in Ned Beatty from booming baritone to genial chumminess; the explosive segues from rage to tenderness in Beatrice Straight; the funny/scary way Faye Dunaway conflates fucking and talking. Only two actors are encouraged to avoid this duality. Peter Finch’s Howard Beale is always switched on, so fearful of career obsolescence he becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of madness, throwing jagged shards of contradictory truth until it’s impossible to tell what he believes. Holden, meanwhile, has hit the off-switch, a walking symbol of lifeless male menopause who can’t be bothered to fake it anymore.
In other words, Network isn’t really about television but about public personas and private doubts and the fear that drives us into comformity. The TV networks may be losing their power to online giants but the business model remains the same, and Chayefsky’s vision of a world populated by humanoids is startlingly relevant. You only need to look at Russell Brand’s reinvention as a political demagogue to realise how susceptible we are to a Beale-like celebrity messiah, or pop onto Twitter to see a million Beales letting loose with their helpless rage. These days, there’s enough craziness beyond the confines of the TV screen to be mad as hell.
Network is released on Blu-ray on Monday 23rd March. Extras include a comprehensive ‘making of’ in visual essay form, and a brilliant find from the archive: an episode of TV series The Directors taking a film-by-film look at Lumet’s ace career, including a strong section on one of this writer’s all-time favourites, The Hill.
Tagged 1970s Cinema