Saturday, January 5, 2019

Network: How The Hell Do You Stage A Classic Film?

Most people alive today weren't around when the hefty, star-studded film Network hit the big screen in 1976.
Nowadays when people hear the works "network" they think of wine and cheese or sharing a beer at WeWork or trying to connect the dots on Linkedin.
But once upon a time there were three major TV networks in America and they pretty much controlled the media landscape. In fact, they kept people so mesmerized that media guru Marshall McLuhan said it didn't even matter what they were showing because, in the end "the medium [TV] is the message." Competition for the top spot among these three powerhouses was fierce and was tracked via overnight Nielsen ratings and audience share. Network introduces an upstart in the media wars -- a struggling new  competitor called the Union Broadcasting System (UBS). In Network, UBS cynically exploits a deranged former anchor's ravings and revelations about the news media for its own profit. As the story unfolds, the anchor (Howard Beale brilliantly portrayed by Peter Finch) becomes a sensation by "articulating the rage" of the American people during the Ford Administration -- a time marked by an energy crisis, growing mideast tension, rising gas prices, runaway  inflation, terrorism and domestic unrest.
Every great film has its iconic moment and signature tagline. In  Network, it comes when Beale utters 12 unforgettable words: "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore!"
Network was nominated for 10 Oscars, won four -- actor and actress Peter Finch, and Faye Dunaway; supporting actress Beatrice Straight and writer Paddy Chayefsky. It also stirred up much debate not just about the decaying values of television but pop culture and society in general.
Today, the film (written by Chayefsky and deftly directed by Sidney Lumet) is viewed as as a prophetic classic and (as described by noted film Critic Pauline Kael) a "messianic farce".
In 2000, Network was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". In 2002, it was inducted into the Producers Guild of America Hall of Fame as a film that has "set an enduring standard for American entertainment". In 2005, the two Writers Guilds of America voted Chayefsky's script one of the 10 greatest screenplays in the history of cinema. And the film has also made the American Film Institute's list as one of the 100 greatest American films.
Network is big, loud, and full of histrionics. The script is dotted with invectives and the actors don't so much recite their lines as spit them out as one another making them drop like so many random explosives.
Now, 42 years later Network has arrived on Broadway. And, in the Age of Trump and Trump Derangement Syndrome it's viewed so au courant that audiences at the Belasco Theater are wildly cheering it night after night and critics are downright giddy over the intense performance of Bryan Cranston in the Howard Beale role as well as the imaginative mounting by Britain's National Theatre and the relentlessly hi-tech, self-conscious direction by Ivo Van Hove. 
No question about it, Cranston's performance is a tour de force and it's backed up by a first-rate cast including, most notably Tony Goldwyn, Joshua Boone, Alyssa Bresnahan and Barzin Akhavan. 
But how do you top Peter Finch, Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Robert Duvall and Beatrice Straight?And how do you fit all of this within the confines of a Broadway house? Well, Van Hove borrows from his recent staging of A View From The Bridge and literally opens the stage to its bare walls. But beyond that, he simultaneously live televises nearly the entire performance and brings TV cameras not just into the audience but into the street outside the theater. The whole thing is so immersive that the the theater audience actually becomes the audience for the televised Howard Beale Show.
Network does seem aptly suited to our ranting, raucous, boisterous times. The coarsening of the culture seems complete and nothing is shocking anymore including the end to this dark tale. After all, no show (including one starring Howard Beale) lasts forever in TVland -- a place where scenarios and players are gobbles up at a breakneck pace. 
Yes, Network remains mostly faithful to Chayefsky's original script with some whole speeches remaining intact. But adapter Lee Hall has rearranged portions of the dialogue, moved parts of the script around and eliminated what some might argue are critical parts of the story -- especially in one key instance. 
And in the big "I'm mad as hell" scene Cranston milks every moment with interminable pauses, twitches and a wring-it-dry approach that is just this side of tedious. Maybe it's part of the director's effort to make the whole thing seem both outrageous and tightly controlled at the same time but it seems to defeat its purpose
We won't tell you exactly how Network ends but we will warn you not to expect a carbon copy of the audacious original ending. The people behind this production have chosen to conclude the two-hour drama (there is no intermission) with a bit of heavy-handed sermonizing via an implausible epilogue and then, after the actors have taken their bows, the whole thing is politicized with a totally irrelevant video just to make sure you get the point.
Network remains a classic.
It is what it is and says what it says. The whole idea was that you would draw your own conclusions about all this.
Why couldn't they just leave it alone?

Read more of Dan Cirucci's Broadway reviews 
at Dan On Broadway!

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