Cinema: The Upper Depths

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Directed by SIDNEY LUMET Screenplay by PADDY CHAYEFSKY

What a loopy enterprise Network is! The production is designed, directed and acted with earnest, not to say dogged realism. The audience is asked to believe that people working inside the television oligopoly scheme to advance their corporate positions with such melodramatic abandon that their behavior constitutes not just an affront to traditional moral standards but clear and present danger to democratic society. Yet the plot that Paddy Chayefsky has concocted to prove this point is so crazily preposterous that even in post-Watergate America—where we know that bats can get loose in the corridors of power—it is just impossible to accept.

Here is just a sampling of what he asks the viewer to believe: that the anchor man of a mythical network's evening news (Peter Finch), about to be fired for low ratings, would inform his audience that in a week he will blow his brains out on-camera; that network executives would allow him back on the air in order to make a somewhat more dignified exit and then, when he crosses them up and announces that his trouble is that he has "run out of bullshit," they would not instantly cut him off the air; that the resulting publicity would cause the network to reverse its decision and put the man on as a regularly scheduled Mad Prophet of the airways; that emboldened by this success, the executives would grant a weekly slice of prime time to a revolutionary group something like the Symbionese Liberation Army so they can stage their heists before a slack-jawed mass audience; that meantime the Mad Prophet would be taken over by a conglomerateur and be come an apologist for multinational capitalism; that this development would cause another ratings crisis and that his network employers, unable to fire him because they too are owned by the conglomerate biggy, would arrange for their revolutionaries to rub the Prophet out in mid-diatribe, thus mercifully bringing him and the film to an end.

Real Life. What is one to say? That the kind of corporate shenanigans detailed in Network have public consequences, and that someone — the FCC, those concerned ladies up in Boston — would raise a hue and cry about the odd programming coming out of the tube? That in real life, network executives tend to err on the side of timidity rather than on the side of even innovation, let alone the sort of madcap invention Chayefsky has them endorse here? That realism is fatal to the kind of social-science fiction he has written?

That he might have got away with his jeremiad had he set it in the future and pretended it was a projection of what might happen if certain current trends go unchecked? All of that is true enough, but the real problem is that Chayefsky has betrayed his own truest instinct about the medium. At one point he has William Holden, the news executive who functions as the movie's superego, inform Faye Dunaway, the ratings-mad exec who is its id, that the trouble with TV is that it reduces everything to banality. That may well be true. But at every turn Chayefsky's plot invests television with a sinister power to cloud men's minds, not through stupefying reductionism but by heated exaggeration. In short, his fable does not fit the facts observable nightly in the living room.

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