IT’S BREAKING NEWS: NETWORK (1976)

FROM THE MGM STABLE

CAST: FAYE DUNAWAY, WILLIAM HOLDEN, PETER FINCH, ROBERT DUVALL.

DIRECTION : SIDNEY LUMET.

*****

A short rundown of this film was written originally by me dated 18th March, 2014. In this post, I will add aspects about it that are central to this all time classic as it presciently saw the future of our news culture in all its existential reserves of absurdity and futility of the milling media machine.

*****

This wickedly satiric Oscar – clinching classic was much ahead of its time, as regards its augury content and laser sharp meditations in an emergency, surrounding media’s ingenious ways to stay put in a dog eat dog rat race.

The newsroom histrionics and TRP fielding revelations ride piggyback on stalwart turns by William Holden, Peter Finch, Faye Dunaway and Robert Duvall. In all, Network has the bite, pout and tersely delights in unmasking behind the scenes factoids – far fetched as they may be- that pan the camera right at us.

Sidney Lumet’s ageless, peerless direction is a masterclass of separate immensity.

( this was my original snippet and over the years I have understood that ‘far fetched’ isn’t the tip of the iceberg in a post 2016 era so I embellish this post with more thoughts that will cohesively come to define this inside look that the film so deftly portrays, more so captures)

*****

I had come to know of this film through the same betokened HOLLYWOOD MOVIE GUIDE by NIKHAT KAZMI of which I have fondly talked about earlier as regards to discovering LEGENDS OF THE FALL. So my excitement knew no bounds when I discovered that this MGM backed film was playing on the channel ; in no time I watched it, only to re-emphasise its tenacity on popular culture, forty years after it shocked general audiences by its unabashed look at the dearly held news media and its subsidiaries and agents running this treadmill of round the clock circus; the ending still runs a chill down our spines. News broadcasting as means of information, enlightenment and entertainment was seen in a new way altogether where the premium was on legitimizing entertainment as a central buzzword. Thus sensationalism was borne. It’s staring us in the face and the contrast with the simplicity of yesteryears even in the case of a contentious interview and the jamboree of now is quite clear. To anticipate it so accurately then is something to marvel courtesy writer PADDY CHAYEFSKY who had earlier penned MARTY and THE HOSPITAL.

He used his pen as a sword to pave the way for satire to unclog pores in the social climate of his living times and addressed them in a manner that would last forever because certain constructs of our world defiantly stay the same. Of course the irony lies in the fact that the television boom that has come to calcify our tastes was the platform through which Paddy found initial success. So it seems he knew the pros and cons of his environment and chose to settle for scathing, stinging truths out of his workplace and the people in charge. His is the real tour de force triumph here. Then director SIDNEY LUMET, helmer of such classics as 12 ANGRY MEN, SERPICO, DOG DAY AFTERNOON , LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT and THE OFFENCE among others, gives it his all; the angles, tilts, balances and vision to see the world for what it stands for. Distorted face of success was ably moulded by him.

Just as I raced my mind back to the viewing pleasure of the film, I was reminded of this poem by ROALD DAHL titled TELEVISION that I had read as a child. Written in bouncy rhyme and addressed to his target audience of children, it was a funny yet decidedly realistic take on the idiot box malaise that links itself so well in this case.

*****

Further, a line quoted by Paddy haunts me, “television is democracy at its ugliest.” You have to be in this very moment in time to know what he means and then when you watch NETWORK, you know the title isn’t just addressing broadcast network programming but this matrix of control and manipulation, a kind of twisted status quo endemic to our Trumpian age of FAKE NEWS and social media wildfires and to most of the fields where the lever of power is in dictatorial hands. In fact such is the demand for eye grabbing tid bits that delivering news has become a case of picking apples from oranges. The basket is chock full of absurdities and milking mileage even out of personal tragedies. NETWORK, for me, saw the jaundiced eye of the omnipotent broadcast camera much before the idea of partisan news and shout fests came into being for me. I thought news journalism was strictly a mirror of truth (and behold my naivete if I say so now ) . But wiser I am in my current being and so I think the zealous, showy theatrics invested in PETER FINCH’S Oscar winning performance as the anxious, once popular show host and now pegged by his network as a madman, bringing modern conscience to the public in his on screen avatar, is adept and strikingly relevant. He’s an onscreen pundit, philosopher, Everyman incarnate and fraud who embodies each of our own manifestations in real life as well as our reactions to the media baggage of the twenty first century. A shout, enraged, beastly snarl it is then. That his popularity is wildly revived is as much a sign of these times. Rather a necessity.

No medium can spell its negativities if we moderate our approach by choosing the pros from the cons but today that is a challenge. The medium is the message of the way network programming has overtaken our sensibilities, leaving no room for one sigh of relief. Or for that matter the network of oddities shared on social media by the minute. Television programming was once basic and bore none of today’s sophistication of technical details; perhaps down this long road many things have been lost and we all know those.

NETWORK rests its hinges on the changing fortunes of a popular broadcasting news network that is headed by one Mr. Schumacher ( William Holden) and where an ambitious young network programmer Ms. Christensen ( Faye Dunaway) is looking for a career breakout.

In their midst is the popular host HOWARD BEALE ( Peter Finch) who is ageing and owing to changing trends is fired and then the resultant transformation on screen as this fevered man he becomes keeps us on tenterhooks. We instinctively understand that his inner dejected state at being tossed aside despite years of prominence feeds into his raving and ranting. It’s the inner unraveling of his soul that only exacerbates his stinging words and on air hyperbole. So even though he is a puppet modeled by hands of his peers and superiors up for TRPs, he is very much a man on fire, battling his delicate mental condition and humiliation. The personal becoming public and political owing to his deatribes against the prevailing socioeconomic mood touches a raw nerve.

It touches a raw nerve for him and the audience which laps it up and sends the show spiraling to the top of the popularity charts. However, the consequent embers do not bode well for anyone. In this game of attracting the might of financiers and sponsors and getting to the top, personalities are put at stake and it’s to the team’s credit that this tragedy is offset by the satiric tones of the show hosted by Beale and both these currents merge seamlessly as it does in real life. The futility and absurdity of existence isn’t solely a Sysiphian concept then but applicable to everyone in their individual capacities. As it is to these people who work hard, run after prominence and are cut throat yet at their vulnerable best and worst are trapped by conventions of their own making. The issue of survival here is so paramount that it only ends up creating hassles for each and this trickle effect comes visiting upon others who cannot bear pressures heaped on them in the name of undue expectations. For me Howard Beale is that tragic figure but as I said earlier each of the main personages have their own unhappy share.

I feel everyone is attempting to make a way in – be it the TV programmer, the head of the channel, the long running show host or the other executive at the upper echelon Mr. Hackett ( ROBERT DUVALL)

The spurned middle aged wife Mrs. Schumacher ( Beatrice Straight who won an Oscar for this) and the one with race on her weighing scales and her own stake in a largely WASPish settlement Ms. Hobbs ( Marlene Warfield) also become part of the narrative and what a storm they whip within the minuscule screen time they receive. But length of a role has never been on my radar and so both of them have left lasting impressions in their few moments. If that is not the acme of talents then what is?

I omit first names of the characters here and keep the surnames only to universalise their penchants excepting Howard Beale who is a repository of all that this script addresses with such panache. I find the surnames to signify something as well. So while Christensen is a clear indication of typically Christian roots, the lady holding it knows her line of work in this media circus is far from the straight path of pure virtue, owing to its push and pull, Mr Schumacher lives life on the fast lane, as is common with the most famous man holding that surname on the racing circuit. Here Schumacher is rich and powerful and somehow gets things done his way while Mr. Hackett seems to bear a slant to a slang often used for manipulative mediapersons- ‘hack’.

NETWORK is powerful as it treads cautiously as a script around the nuts and bolts of our worldviews where the rich or resourceful somehow always manage to recover assets considerably even within floundering economies while there is clearly a flipside to success. Security is a fallacy while humbling influences are hard to come by.

It’s one of those strange but believable contingencies that we look at in hindsight and smile about as its sense of seeing the future is full of trademark truisms – more curiously relevant now than ever before. NETWORK, thus, is a product of the Golden 70s era as of the here and now. Its ending is one mind bender.

*****

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