Going broad

Peter Finch as the unhinged Howard Beal, on the air in Network (1976).

Rewatching Network (dir. Sidney Lumet, 1976) earlier this week for the first time in over a decade, it became apparent to me that the film's reputation as a hard-hitting drama has effectively worked to obscure its value as a hugely entertaining comedy.  It's like an Aaron Sorkin movie ratcheted up to an hysterical key: some of the duller notes in Paddy Chayefsky's screenplay anticipate the high-mindedness of Sorkin, but they're mostly tempered--or rather steamrolled over--by the broadness of the satire.  The movie ends, lest we forget, with a deadpan comic set piece in which TV execs calmly sit around a conference table and make plans to get rid of their Frankenstein's-monster of a lunatic pundit (Peter Finch) by scripting his on-air assassination.  Scenes like that one, or the one in which an Angela Davis-type fumes about the terms of her TV contract, or the montage sequence in which Faye Dunaway whips herself into a sexual frenzy by talking about primetime programming, are funny enough to excuse the fact that William Holden is made to deliver not one but two holier-than-thou speeches about how his generation has values and Dunaway's doesn't.   

So Network might not be the most nuanced of films--but that seems to me one of its strengths.  A weaker, more moderate film might have qualified every one of Network's points unto blandness.  The comic edge of the movie works better when it goes big.  The fictional UBS network isn't just a soulless corporation: it's an evil empire.  Diana Christiansen (Dunaway) isn't just flawed: she's a femme fatale who literally devours everyone and everything that crosses her path.  ("I eat anything," she boasts to Max Schumacher [Holden] when he asks her to dinner.  Later we see her watching Howard Beal [Finch] on TV, her eyes glittering as she puts away a hamburger.)  Subtle it ain't, at least not at the level of its characterization.  The hammiest turn of all is given to Ned Beatty, who delivers a thunderous speech about the omnipotence of global capitalism with the zeal of a fire-and-brimstone evangelist.  I like Network for its willingness to be broad and big, even if only to make statements about journalistic ethics and corporate greed that are pretty on-the-nose--for its willingness to play for laughs rather than tongue-clucks.

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