Maybe I'm just more practised at negativity, but amid all these hopelessly reductive one-line appraisals of my favourite movies, I'm going to start an occasional series here of longer Doubting Tim posts on other consensus classics that, for various reasons, won't be getting in any time soon. (I'm not going to reward them with pictures, either, so there.)
It must be some twelve years since I last saw Network, Sidney Lumet's four-time Oscar-winning TV satire from 1976, and I fully remember loving the movie at an age when articulate-sounding despair, voraciously mannered acting from half the cast, and Faye Dunaway were all recommendations in themselves. My incentive for going back to it was a terrific post over at Nick's, in which he explained the reasons for its ongoing personal appeal to him while rightly calling it out as consistently overrated.
Boy, is it. I think Paddy Chayefsky's script, very often referred to as one of the sharpest achievements in 1970s Hollywood screenwriting, is actually really tremendously bad - a self-righteous screed against TV as an institution, dripping with contempt for the braindead masses who watch it, and casting those responsible for churning it out as almost uniformly soulless ratings-obsessed automatons. You can agree with all that if you like, but what's really death to the movie is how shrill and monotonous Chayefsky's characterisations are; Dunaway's Diana begins and ends it as exactly the same (non)person, and she's not progressively revealed as "television incarnate" so much as a walking target straight off for the excoriation she gets slapped with at the end. That speech is vicious - as is the idea of ratings giving her instant orgasms - and it comes nonsensically from the mouth of the dull-but-supposedly-decent William Holden character, who gets romantically involved with Diana purely so that Chayefsky can shoehorn it in when they split.
Finch's Howard Beale isn't a character, either: he's a foaming mouthpiece for Chayefsky's ineffectually generalised rants about, as far as I could work out, the end of civilisation as we know it. By showing all those viewers up and down the street going gaga for Beale's rampantly unfocused "mad as hell" moment the movie smugly buys into the meme that no one ever went broke underestimating our intelligence. So, like an awful lot of films which resort to dim-bulb crowd behaviour to score their ostensible points, this isn't a satire so much as an unachieved idea for one, carried superficially aloft by Chayefsky's florid and pretentious phrase-making. (Does the word "auspicatory" really even exist?) Lumet's tired, recessive direction is also to blame: he hands each big monologue over to his principal actors on a plate, and in most scenes you can tell who's about to get one because it'll be the person who happens to be standing up.
Chayefsky's gestures at post-modernism, meanwhile, get him nowhere - "Here we are, going through the obligatory end-of-act-two husband leaves scorned wife scene..." - says Holden to Beatrice Straight, who picked up an Oscar - the film's weirdest - for probably a day's work doing the scorned wife bit in precisely that scene. The point is that everything in Network feels obligatory, everything designed to win Oscars for telling Hollywood exactly what it wants to hear about TV, and everything born of self-backslapping cynicism rather than genuinely progressive insight. Besides, in an age where the networks are capable of derailing the entire electoral process and deliberately skewing the vicissitudes of an ongoing war for heaven's sake, there's an awful lot more to bash them with than just a bit of amoral ratings-grabbing.