“Mad as Hell: The Making of ‘Network’ and the Fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in Movies” by Dave Itzkoff

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Paddy Chayefsky’s “Network,” a brutally funny and depressing view about American television, is one of the most highly acclaimed (and sadly prescient) satirical films ever made.  Scripted by Chayefsky and directed by Sidney Lumet, it was critically lauded and was also a decent-size box-office hit, a rarity for a satirical film.

Dave Itzkoff’s superlative account of the making of “Network” and its influence on modern news / broadcasting is a wonderfully entertaining read and is recommended for anyone who has an interest in comedy, 1970s Hollywood, broadcast journalism, and Chayefsky.   Itzkoff not only paints detailed backgrounds of all the principals involved, but also quotes many of the actors who had minor but pivotal roles in the film.  Itzkoff’s last chapter deals with the influence of “Network” among broadcast journalists, including some (Glenn Beck, allegedly a huge fan) who seem to have missed the point of the film entirely.

My own feelings about the film are positive, but a little mixed.  In the plus column are the acting performances by Peter Finch, William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Beatrice Straight, Robert Duvall, Ned Beatty and several others.  Also in the plus column is Lumet’s realistic, almost deadpan direction which is the appropriate tone for a movie that gets increasingly outrageous.  And yes, Chayefsky’s script is very good and is justly famous as one of the greatest scripts of all-time.  Chayefsky’s hellish vision of television news devolving into cheap entertainment seemed outrageous in 1976, but is nowhere near as ridiculous as what passes for “news” these days.

However, the problem is also … Chayefsky’s vision.  The film’s strident tone, the shrill manner in which the dialogue is often delivered, and the endless harangues and speeches really grate on the nerves.  Unlike most films, this can’t all be blamed on the director (Lumet), since Chayefsky was the one who insisted on complete creative control (probably one of the only writers who had this much autonomy over what they wrote).  Whatever you don’t like about Spike Lee or Aaron Sorkin (who always deliver their points with a sledgehammer) can be traced directly back to Chayefsky’s script for “Network.”  The most grating character is, ironically, the one who is supposed the be the voice of reason, William Holden’s Max Schumacher.  While I agree with some of the sentiments of what he has to say, the tone comes off as unbearably smug.   I don’t know how much of that is due to the way Holden interpreted the character or what he’s been given to say.  Either way, in the second half of “Network,” Schumacher comes off as pompous and self-righteous and it leaves a bad taste.   I realize I shouldn’t be showing this scene out of the context of the film (I urge you to see it in full and make up your own mind), but it’s the clearest example I can find for why this film doesn’t sit well with me, even thought I admire it very much.

“The Great Santini” (1980) dir. Lewis John Carlino

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“The Great Santini” is a marvelous film adaptation of Pat Conroy’s novel. Robert Duvall gives what is arguably his finest acting performance as Lt. Col. Wilbur “Bull” Meechum, a Marine fighter pilot who excels in his job, but bullies everyone around him, especially his family. Michael O’Keefe arguably gives his best ever acting performance as Meechum’s oldest son Ben. Duvall and O’Keefe were both nominated for Oscars that year, but lost out to Robert DeNiro in “Raging Bull” and Timothy Hutton in “Ordinary People” respectively. The film also boasts great performances by Blythe Danner, Lisa Jane Persky, Stan Shaw, and David Keith.

The scene I’ve included here is the memorable and very painful scene where Ben plays a one-on-one basketball game with his father. Duvall has balls of steel for doing a film like this, because what his character does in this scene is one of the most hateful displays of bullying I’ve ever seen on film. The best thing about “The Great Santini” is that there is no redemptive arc to Duvall’s character. He’s an immature, pathetic, loathsome human being pretty much throughout the entire film. He’s not entirely unlikable, but damn near close.