-Chayefsky’s writing shines stronger than anything else in Lumet’s world, Dunaway is smokeshow-
I will spare your eyes and my fingers the strain derived from extracting overarching themes and social commentaries from the film (just what were Lumet and Chayefsky trying to say with this film) I leave all of that intellectual badgering well…to the intellectuals.
First things first….I have never been more attracted to Faye Dunaway in my entire life. Despite being a cannibal’s worst-case-scenario as far as eating arrangements go, her striking beauty and callous aggressiveness make for a deliciously intriguing character, one that could very plausibly draw Holden’s character out of a 26 year marriage and into her stick-thin arms.
If Dunaway’s character was not a clear enough symbol for the dehumanization of the television generation, Chayefsky drives his point home when her jilted lover, played by William Holden blatantly verbalizes the message:
You’re television incarnate, Diana: Indifferent to suffering; insensitive to joy. All of life is reduced to the common rubble of banality. War, murder, death are all the same to you as bottles of beer. And the daily business of life is a corrupt comedy. You even shatter the sensations of time and space into split seconds and instant replays. You’re madness, Diana. Virulent madness. And everything you touch dies with you. But not me. Not as long as I can feel pleasure, and pain… and love.
While Dunaway was given the bones on some meaty dialogue opportunities, I will say that Chayefsky writes the kind of script that actors/actresses kill for. Each speech is poetic and compelling, each teeming with a critique on the state of the “info-tainment” industry. Some themes are laid out as clear as crystal, whether it be Finchs’s diatribes against network bias in content distribution or the unwavering faith the American public put in the veracity of said content (“The only truth you know is what you get over this tube”, “and when the twelfth largest company in world controls the most awesome goddamn propaganda force in the whole godless world, who knows what type of shit we are going to peddle for truth on this network!”) You don’t have to delve deep for such a message, which is nice. In a post-modernist film-world where a facial expression or hand-gesture is supposed to convey a pallet of emotions, where layers of meaning are assigned to the most trivial actions, Chayefsky makes his point by vomiting in your lap.
This is not to say that the writer’s message does not have its fair share of ambiguities. Indeed a central contradiction that runs throughout the film is that television, although categorized as an escapist medium that emotionally anaesthetises the populace, is also the very same medium that Howard Beale, a once suicidal newscaster turned “mad prophet of the airwaves,” uses to incite public indignation. Beale beckons the public to physically respond to the mass devaluing of human life, along with a plethora of other social ills (still echoed to this day). They scream out of their windows “I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore” and write telegrams to the White House to oppose a corporate takeover instrumented by a Saudi sovereign wealth fund. Yet Beale’s final plea before his mania gives way to a complete collapse requires the viewers to “Turn off their televisions!” This gasping entreaty is not heeded by the public, an indication that their compliance with the zealot only goes so far, that their refusal to cut-off communiqué is the “Networks” ultimate triumph.
We can take Chayefsky’s words with a grain of salt, but not when they are enlivened by Peter Finch’s brilliant delivery. Spattered with a venomous spit, screaming with a sense of desperation and urgency, Howard Beale’s rants have long been toted as the most famous lines from Lumet’s work, and it is not difficult to see why. Yet one never gets the sense that we should be taking the speeches at face value. The satire never wears off, and the over-the-top apocalyptic messages embedded in our prophet’s dialogue continue to resemble a Billy Graham special you turned off at first glance.
Indeed much criticism has been leveled at the writer-director duo for leavening their strong political content with humor, resulting in a considerable dilution of their serious intent. Yet for me, if the film did not take on such a clear satirical bent, if Howard Beale did not follow up his declaration of an on-air suicide with “you’ll get a hell of a rating out of it, fifty-share at least” the film would be pawned off as another “zeitgeist” documentary, a “look at how shitty the world is” preach-show written by extreme leftist trust fund brats who haven’t had their Berkenstocks on solid ground since they came mewling and crying into this world. No. Season your message with absurdity before serving it to me because in the end…I need to be entertained. Hell, maybe I’ve become exactly what Lumet’s “Network” predicted.