By Bob Clark
Over the course of this current election cycle in the United States, among the more sobering realizations of the current state and trends in American politics has been the slow, unwavering death of the usefulness and relevancy posed by the classic party convention. It had seemed almost a foregone conclusion that Mitt Romney would win the nomination of the GOP, with practically a dozen potential rivals ranging from the relative moderate of John Huntsman to the absolutely nuts like Herman Cain all being marched out at some point or another as alternate choices, each an electoral sacrificial lamb before the official candidacy could be fully anointed and legitimized. This all occurred during a premature primary season that stretched on for months, or even seemingly years following the election of Barack Obama, whose own road through the nomination process in the Democratic party had encountered all its most serious obstacles during the ’08 primary season. Political conventions have been more a matter of ceremony and fluff for seemingly decades now, the last time any serious challenge was posed to a candidate being Ted Kennedy’s abortive run at the Democratic 1980 nomination at the height of Carter’s slump. One need only look at the acclaimed Altman & Trudeau collaboration of Tanner 88 and its docu-drama look at a fictional Presidential candidate to understand just how thoroughly determinative the nomination process has become, and how useless the conventions– Dukakis’ eventual nomination seems so inevitable even as early as New Hampshire, it barely makes a difference to add a fictional politician running as competition. Why not? He has just as much chance as most of the bums.
So how exactly did the convention process become so mechanical, so rote and perfunctory? Why is it that the most electrifying moment in a convention from the past ten years has been the moment that Barack Obama surprised delegates with his impassioned speech during the ’04 Democratic ceremonies that were supposed to have been Kerry’s, instead of anything from one of his own in ’08 or this year? Though the answer can be delivered in long or short form, the prevailing reason surrounds the fact of mass-media’s acceleration in the past 30 years, revving up news-cycles to last 24 hours and 7 days a week in order to meet the increasing demand of cable-news channels like CNN, commentary from talk-radio and the unending stream of information drifting in both officially and off any kind of record via the internet. With news coming in from and often through online sources there’s less of a censoring process, more of a chance for gaffes and horrifying embarrassments to leak through the system and catch politicians unaware, often ending candidacies that might’ve never been impeded back during the more relative decorum of old-school journalism. Coverage is constant, and as a means to differentiate and influence the tides we’ve seen the development of more and more bias from media sources like Fox News and MSNBC, helping to turn the already frenetic crossfire of American political discourse into a shooting war, instead of the mere shooting gallery it could be before. Even anchors on traditional networks have seen their influence and positions rise from merely reporting the news to lending an even greater importance and scrutiny to which news they ought report. Dan Rather’s fall from CBS after playing it fast and loose with damning charges towards then President Bush may have underlined to many the danger that anchors can put themselves in for not being careful enough with the facts, but also showcases the potential power of influence that’s been built up behind desks like his. Why else be so afraid of it?
The ironic thing is that, even as the anchor-system and the age of television news it represents has more or less killed the old-school party convention system and by extension posed an incredible unbalancing influence over the modern American political experiment, it’s possible to forget that that anchors and the very ways that news-television began were in a very real sense birthed from, or at the very least midwifed by, that very same method of political conventions. Anchormen like Cronkite and Brinkley have become such a part of the American cultural landscape that they seem to have inherited their positions from some remote corner of the nation’s founding– there ought to have been men sitting behind desks somewhere at the Constitutional Convention, at the Battle of Gettysburg. We forget that men sat behind those desks at first to provide a stable ground for television viewers to keep returning to from so many cut-aways to live coverage of reporters on the convention floor– they were quite literally “anchors” for the evening broadcast, summing up any of the dizzying arrays of news and developments from the teeming masses of feuding delegates in the labyrinthine road to securing a Presidential nomination. As such, the anchor is a position that benefits most from live-coverage during an event taking place in present-tense, as opposed to the summing-up of a whole day’s past newsworthy notes– the news-magazine approach of meticulously researched, documentary storytelling pioneered by Murrow in the early days of CBS television and mastered in the long-running 60 Minutes is the best exemplary of the past-tense journalism that most anchors are asked to do on a daily basis. After so much time living behind a desk, reporting to the cold, dead-eye of a camera lens and forced to live in the electrified now of shock and awe during moments of high and terrible drama or else sulk in the stupefying human-interest stories of slow news-days, you’d think more of these anchors would go a little crazy, every once in a while.
As written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Sidney Lumet, Network charts what happens when one of those anchors goes unhinged and finds himself turned into a pawn by various rival factions of news, entertainment and corporate divisions within the broadcast network he’s labored under for the better part of twenty years. Though it’s nominally a comedy of grand satirical stakes and exaggerations, one of the best things about the film is how often it’s willing to play things straight and with a deadly, deadpan casual quality, something that’s born from both men’s backgrounds writing and directing for television back in the halcyon days of live drama programs like Playhouse 90. there’s a wonderful backstage quality to the best moments in the film, the way that characters will spout off technical and corporate jargon about live and tape shots, announcer cues and ratings metrics with mile-a-minute nonchalance. The best portions of Chayefsky’s script are the ones where he lets the broadcaster lingo dominate the soundtrack and Lumet lets it fire off all at once in overlapping panic mode. It gives the film a feel of a documentary shot in a foreign country without the benefit of subtitles, speaking a behind-the-scenes language we have to pick up and learn bit by bit as we go. There’s both a confidence at work there on the part of the filmmakers, and a generosity in spirit to believe that we’ll manage and understand this without having to condescendingly stop every minute or so to explain what they mean when Peter Finch and William Holden talk about the fifty-share they’d get from broadcasting a suicide live on the air. Gallow’s humor doesn’t work if the hangman stops to give a Boy Scout’s lesson in how to tie a knot.
As such, there’s risk throughout much of the film whenever it stops to cover any of Chayefsky’s long sermon speeches, which admittedly it must if its subject is the rise and fall of an anchorman losing his mind on the air. There’s no shortage of soliloquizing throughout the whole of the film, with nearly all the major characters (and some of the minor ones) stopping to arrest the flow of the film’s momentum and demand our attention for a long speech. For much of the film this is still steeped in the hard-bitten jargon of behind-the-scenes newsmaking– Faye Dunaway’s zealously career-oriented producer hijacking the twin details of Finch’s on-air meltdowns and a bunch of camera-savvy left-wing guerrillas into major television stars, Robert Duvall and Ned Beatty’s leviathan-voiced board-room shouters, barking corporate messiah-sermons to the moon. Even the craziest and bleakest of Finch’s televized rants shines with the gleam of professional copy and off-promptor vamping– you don’t doubt for a second that the man has decades of experience reciting news to the camera and that he knows how to couch his speeches with journalistic finesse. It might not sound like anything you’d actually hear on the news, but it has the same quality that you’d expect from a news-man, and at its best moments it carries a universal honesty that you can believe represents the breaking of a dam that stemmed so many years of frustration and anxiety from spouting off insubstantial nonsense to the viewers. Even when his network and corporate handlers try to redirect him into the more marketable channels of demagoguery and propaganda, there’s enough kernels of truth in his speeches to fill a bag of pop-corn.
So when the film goes off the rails and slowly turns into an over-the-top parody of the news instead of the strict, corporate thriller it starts out as, there’s still enough realness to behold that makes up for all of the bullshit. Holden and Dunaway’s romance drags the film to a standstill whenever we’re forced to watch them come up with some laboratory experiment with chemistry. The script spends more time giving them speeches that comment with overwhelming obviousness on the artificiality of their scenario– if you played a drinking game and took a shot every time they compared their relationship to television scripts, you’d be wise to call and get your name put on a liver transplant list. The same is true for many of the political rants that the various left-wing militants deliver over the course of the film, though at least they interrupt one another now and then, lending a gleam of documentary realism through the cartoonish caricatures. So much of the extended speeches that Chayefsky writes feel as though they’re hand-me-downs from the era of live-television playwriting he represented the best and brightest of, penning impressive scripts that contained as much of the action of any given story to a single location and deep in the present-tense of live shooting. For a film that so scrutinizes the soap-box impulse, Network spends an uncanny amount of time delivering speeches on an antiseptic podium of its own. It’s thanks to Lumet’s studiously realist camera that even at its most hyperbolic moments, the film retains a sense of the documentary about it. Made at the height of his period covering the various institutions of New York City politics and media, his eye helps ground the over-the-top elements and helps better showcase the ways in which Chayefsky’s script eerily seems to project the future course of media evolution.
Network has long been an influence on films and television productions seeking to dramatize the behind-the-scenes madness of live television– James L. Brooks’ Broadcast News and Aaron Sorkin’s various programs have all more or less attempted to inherit the same methods and messages that Lumet and Chayefsky captured here, but for the most part have merely watered down their maverick experiments and spent more time perfecting the lesser parts of this film’s equation (a ban ought to be put on depicting any further backstage romances in the television industry– if Holden and Dunaway couldn’t make it interesting, what the hell chance do Jeff Daniels and Emily Mortimer have?). At the same time, one has to wonder if the more lasting and troubling influence the film has may be on the very industry it seeks to critique. Like many a classic science-fiction novel or film, Network is often said to have predicted a coming tide in the future, here represented in the rise of talking-head punditry and demagoguery posed by the various infotainment figures of the 80’s, 90’s and beyond. Admittedly, it’s hard to look at Finch and the cult of personality and production that rises around him and not think of ranting televangelist demagogues or anyone from the Fox News school of journalism, going out of their way to go off reservation and underline the mimicked truth they speak to the masses. Even the blend of journalism and fiction that Dunaway seeks to combine with her “Mao-Tse Tung Hour” bears a resemblance to the deadening storm of reality-television we’re now stuck in, though in reality we’d see this trend rise from more reactionary sources in programs like “COPS”.
But to say that Network merely predicts the future is to make the same mistake of hindsight that anyone who posits Jules Verne or Arthur C. Clarke as simple prophets makes. Better to say that authors and artists such as them have inspired future advances rather than foreseen them– without Captain Nemo’s adventures there might never have been a submarine in its current form, or trips to the moon and the stars beyond without Clarke and Kubrick’s collaboration. It’s often easier to see the inspiration in positive modes of sci-fi writing such as these, rather than those moments when dark, dystopian visions wind up influencing the future they seek to avoid. Would we have the current reality of constant police-state surveillance if not for Orwell’s Big Brother? Would the rise of reality television have been quite as steep an ascent if not for the suggestions of speculative fare like The Truman Show? Sometimes all it takes is a story to articulate the mass unconscious feelings and ideas that are already germinating and give it a form that can easily be codified and sold to the public at large– like so many acts of mythic prophecy, warnings of the future give raise to the very days-to-come they sought to avoid. As such, should we wonder if among the filmgoers in the audience watching Network there might’ve been some of the future executives that helped shape the modern mass-media complex currently suffocating journalism?
In just the same way that Jules Verne or George Orwell helped suggest future advances in technology or totalitarian regimes, Chayefsky’s script here contains an element of speculative fiction about it, and at times seems to reach for a kind of futurism itself in the way that Finch speaks of interconnectedness or Beatty does of a future corporate utopia of dehumanized drones. The fact that one of Chayefsky’s last works would be the mindbending sci-fi of Altered States seems almost too appropriate, especially in the ways William Hurt attempts hallucinatory meditation to fuel an escape from the confines of reality. It’s much the same reaction that Peter Finch experiences in Network, though without the outside assistance of drugs or sensory deprivation tanks– turn on, tune in, and drop out.
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