2015 Blind Spot Series: “Network”

NETWORK poster

“Network” is a film that I have probably seen if you piece together all of the portions I’ve watched over time. But it qualified as a Blind Spot because I had never sat down and watched it through. I never could put a finger on what kept me from investing the time to watch a film that many categorize as truly great. Upon watching it in its entirety, I was reminded what first drew me to the movie as well as what pushed me away.

For me “Network” is a mixed bag that is hard a narrow down or label. To call it messy would be an understatement, but there is a reason and motivation behind its messiness. “Network” seeks to push every button it can reach. It strives to be a full-blown outrageous satire, an insightful look behind the scenes, and a sermon on nearly every social or political concern of 1976. Director Sidney Lumet and writer Paddy Chayefsky never allow their film to be pigeonholed but at the same time its constant shifts in tone and voice, specifically in the second half, do more to distract than enlighten.


The film begins by painting itself as a behind-the-scenes expose on a struggling television network. UBS makes the decision to fire their longtime evening news anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch) after a steady ratings decline. During one of his final broadcasts Beale threatens to kill himself on live television (an idea inspired by Christine Chubbuck’s on-air suicide in 1974). This infuriates the network heads who have him removed immediately.

Beale’s best friend and news division boss Max Schumacher (William Holden) allows him to appear one more time in order to bow out with dignity. Beale uses the opportunity to go on a mad rant which again angers his bosses but spikes the network ratings. Programming director and ruthless ratings hawk Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) convinces her boss Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall) to exploit Beale’s obvious mental breakdown much to Max’s disapproval.

But “Network” then shoots off into a number of unusual directions including an ill-fated romance between Diana and Max. Diana is incapable of loving anything other than television ratings while Max flippantly and emotionlessly leaves his wife of 25 years Louise (earnestly played by Beatrice Straight who won an Oscar for her whopping 5 minutes of screen time). It is a weird side road that only plays out in spurts. There is a compelling current in each of their scenes yet we are never allowed the time to fully understand the relationship.


The film also branches off into a Patty Hearst-like side story complete with an urban leftist militant group directly patterned after the Symbionese Liberation Army. These scenes start off strong but intentionally grow more absurd. These things all clash together before culminating in an ending which is completely off the rails. Again, none of this is by accident. Lumet and Chayefsky have so much to say, so much to explore, and so many indictments. Some of it is chilling and prophetic while some gets lost in the melange of loud rants and pointed lectures. But somehow it is always compelling.

“Network” was a huge success in 1976 and was widely applauded by critics. It won a total of four Oscars (for Dunaway, Finch, Straight, and Chayefsky) and was nominated for six more. It is a film that does so many interesting things and it subverts nearly any expectation the audience may have going in. Yet despite its irreverent ambitions it is messy to a fault. The clashing between seriousness and satire is jolting and not always in an entertaining way. I also don’t think the film lives up to its own lofty feelings of self-importance. It ends up being an engaging but frustrating road full of many ups and some disappointing downs.


3 Stars

REVIEW: “Bonnie and Clyde”

BONNIE poster

The 1967 crime drama/biopic “Bonnie and Clyde” wasn’t the easiest movie to get made. There were numerous squabbles between the film’s producer and star Warren Beatty and Warner Brothers over everything from budget and shooting locations to the size of the film’s release. Once it did hit theaters it faced a new wave of controversies mainly aimed at the films depiction of violence. “Bonnie and Clyde” is said to be one of the first mainstream American films to use graphic violence therefore opening the doors for the waves of cinematic bloodshed that would follow. At the time some critics railed on the film, but it would go on to be a box office hit and it’s now viewed as a true motion picture classic.

As with many movies like this several liberties were taken for dramatic reasons. A number of people contributed to the script but David Newman and Robert Benton did most of the heavy lifting. Their script strips down the true Bonnie and Clyde story while still creating a vivid and absorbing tale. There is no backstory at all. The film opens with Faye Dunaway’s Bonnie Parker sultrily moving about her upstairs room when she notices Warren Beatty’s Clyde Barrow attempting to steal her mother’s car. She confronts him but after a brief conversation they are on the road and story of Bonnie and Clyde has begun.


Now could the story have gone deeper into their backgrounds and motivations? Probably so, but I think the film gives us what’s necessary for the type of story it’s telling. We learn that Bonnie is a waitress who is unhappy with the seemingly meaningless life she lives. She waits tables, she gets occasional dates from passing truckers, then she goes home – rinse and repeat. But you also get the sense that she is wooed by Clyde’s charms and visions of grandeur. Of the two characters, Bonnie is the most intriguing. Throughout the film you get glimpses that she does want more in life. She has visions of what happiness should be yet she has no one to cling to but Clyde.

The two Depression-era outlaws take off on a crime spree that starts with a few smalltime holdups. They pickup a simpleton named C.W. Moss (Michael Pollard) and the three begin hitting banks. This is also when their crimes go from simple bank robberies to killing. Clyde’s brother Buck (Gene Hackman) and his shrill and reluctant wife Blanche (Estelle Parsons) joins up with them and the Barrow gang is formed. Amazingly every one of the cast members I’ve mentioned so far received Academy award nominations for their performances. Interestingly enough, Parsons (in what may be the lesser performance of the group) was the only one to win. It’s worth noting that, while he didn’t get an Oscar nomination, Gene Wilder shows up in what is his feature film debut.

“Bonnie and Clyde” toys around with several other interesting themes. There are several well-placed jabs focused on how the media manipulates news stories for their own interests. This goes hand-in-hand with law enforcement who began attributing bank robberies and killings to Bonnie and Clyde even though they had nothing to do with them. This interesting little twist asks the question of who is more responsible for the pair’s dubious rise to fame? As a result their mythos grew larger and larger from town to town and much of that is due to what was being put out in the papers and by law enforcement.


When writing about the film, the great Roger Ebert noted a particular scene where an upset Bonnie is walking through a wheat field and Clyde is chasing after her. The camera pulls back and gives us a longshot of the field just as a cloud is passing over the sun. In an eerie moment of foreboding, the cloud covers Bonnie and Clyde hinting at what lies ahead for them. This is the pre-CGI era and chances are it was a freak act of nature. Still it’s a tremendous example of Burnett Guffey’s brilliant Oscar-winning cinematography. The film looks amazing and I wasn’t surprised to read that it was influenced by the French New Wave. In fact one of my favorite directors Francois Truffaut was originally asked to direct the film but declined. Arthur Penn got the job and he incorporated that slick and stylish French influence.

“Bonnie and Clyde” was a cultural phenomenon upon its release and it has earned its ‘classic movie’ title. While the supporting cast is great, the cinematography is amazing, and the bluegrass score sets a perfect tone, it’s the two leads who anchor the film. Dunaway is skittish, hopeful, and beautiful and Beatty, an actor I can generally take or leave, is charismatic and completely believable. We buy into them from the start and that is why the journey we take with them is thrilling and unforgettable.