Monday, February 28, 2011

Capsule reviews: Lumet Double-Feature: Network, Dog Day Afternoon

Network (1976, Sidney Lumet)

Television news has come a long way since the early 1970s, but some will be quick to argue that the change has been nothing resembling an ‘evolution.’ News media in Canada can be a bit drier than what our American friends often see when flipping channels. In the United States, the number of political analysis show hosts and news anchors who give in to raw emotions as much, if not more so, than reason, is alarming to say the least. The great Sidney Lumet already understood the changes that rested on the horizon, just waiting to take over. The transformation of the traditional news program into a parody of itself, part info-entertainment circus, part venue for very emotional and loud people to vent, is explored with crushing accuracy and poignancy in Network. Howard Beale (Peter Finch), after suffering from depression and stress, becomes the ultimate news anchor pawn for ratings gurus Diana (Faye Dunaway) and Frank (Robert Duvall) once the man’s lunatic antics produce a sharp rise in the station’s ratings. William Holden is Howard’s good friend and boss Max, who is replaced by the beautiful but highly competitive and driven Diana, with whom he also has a love affair.

Network is one of those movies that looks plain on the surface with nothing too flashy happening, but in truth has a remarkable amount of interesting ideas and characters floating about. To witness the morphing of the news program Beale used to host at the start of the movie into the borderline theatre play through which he yells whatever doctrines he espouses, all of which his legions of listeners swallow like candy…is incredible. The power of this transformation rests not merely with the obvious changes in the quality of the presentation of content on both shows, shocking enough,  but on the wheeling and dealing which transpires behind the scenes, between the important men and women, between station managers and media conglomerates. Between people who still care about what ‘makes the news’ and people who need to keep men in suits happy with high revenue. Granted, the film is populated by archetypes. Max is the noble friend who fears for the Howard’s health and for what the station shows. He is old school. He is a journalist. Diana and Frank our almost soulless, obviously concerned with the money they make, less so with the ramifications of the content they are providing. Of course, here we are about 35 years later, and it is quite clear Diana and Frank have won, not Max, which makes the film all the more interesting and historically relevant.

It also helps that the performances are on an unparalleled level. Dunaway exudes the discomforting silkiness of a woman who is in it to win, against whose pretty eyes and smile one must be cautious to the umpteenth degree. Peter Finch is the poor man who is surely losing his mind, but is used and abused by people who far outweigh his position him in the business. His is also a good performance, but the winner here is William Holden, who gives a surprisingly effective performance, especially in how touching it is. In this world gone mad, Holden’s Max is the beacon of light, even though it is a fading light on whom we only count on for so long before darkness envelopes it. Holden’s work in Network is some of his very best, and some of the best this movie fan has ever had the pleasure of discovering. Sidney Lumet’s film cannot be recommended highly enough.

Dog Day Afternoon (1975, Sidney Lumet)

Two men played by Al Pacino and Frank Cazale walk into a small bank in downtown Brooklyn one piping hot summer afternoon in the hopes pulling off a robbery which should, in theory, rake in some major cash.  But that is only in theory. This is a movie, and therefore nothing goes as planned. In fact, it seems as though in no time at all the police have been alerted of their presence and have the establishment surrounding with hundreds armed men. The news reporters have arrived on the scene, a crowd as gathered, and the bank tellers taken hostage inside are getting cranky. Sonny (Pacino), who is the brains of the failed operation, has to juggle all the variables if he and his partner Sal (Cazale) are to make it and avoid spending time in the slammer.

Interestingly enough, Dog Day Afternoon feels like a pseudo prequel to Network, if in spirit only. Like in Lumet’s next film, this balances out serious material with scenes filled with laughter. Neither are comedies, but both were given a biting sense of humour by the filmmakers. Additionally, the media and public perception play a part in the story, if on a much smaller scale than it does in Network (obviously). As the afternoon evolves, Sonny succeeds in winning the minds and hearts of the crowd by taunting a police force known for blatant inefficacy. The media have a field day with this.

Pacino is just so good in this movie. The determination to execute the heist properly is fierce, but that fails. Then determination to control the crowd of hostages is fierce, but they eventually warm up to one another (the women like Sonny a lot by the end of the movie). His back and forth verbal exchanges with the police outside are both hilarious and intelligently acted out. Pacino’s gives the character of Sonny tremendous depth. His face is one of the most interesting faces to read in movies. The confidence of the early scenes when he thinks the robbery will work, then the frustration of failure, followed by a confidence boost when the he makes the police look like a bunch of fools, replaced by the a growing and alarming sense that he may not get out of this predicament, which he put himself in, in one piece. This may be my favourite Pacino performance. There are a lot of things working in favour of the movie, but Pacino's acting leads the pack of reasons to watch. Dog Day Afternoon has unmistakable entertainment value and very strong character development, the latter being a rarity in heist films.


CS said...

Finally saw Network for the first time I am shocked by how much I loved that film. One of the best screenplays ever written in my opinion. I always liked Dog Day Afternoon, but I would dare say that Network is the better of the two. It is amazing how relevant that film is in today's culture.

edgarchaput said...

Network,s longevity and cultural relevancy is quite stunning. It is not merely a testiment to the quality of Lumet's film, but a depressing testament to the state of news media. As I mentioned in my review, news media in Canada rarely gets as chaotic and it looks like it does in the United States. My insight into American news media is very limited, but stories of conglomerates and media control are not mystery to anyone in the world, so Network still manages to reach out and speak to plenty of people.