Three stars vie for our attention in Network, which opened Dec. 6 on Broadway following a celebrated run at the National Theatre in London. First is Paddy Chayefsky, whose prescient screed of a screenplay laid out the roadmap leading from post-Watergate cynicism to today’s ruinous conjugation of news and reality TV. Second is the Amsterdam-based director Ivo van Hove, who frequently outfits the sober work of artists as unalike as Arthur Miller and Ingmar Bergman in the high-tech spangles of the very medium Chayefsky satirized.
Finally, and alpha among this triad of novas, is Bryan Cranston, giving a towering performance as Howard Beale, the stolid news anchor whose termination in the wake of poor ratings leads to an on-air meltdown that makes him a global sensation. “First you’ve got to get mad,” Howard says to the camera. “Stick your head out the window and yell, ‘I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!'” The line becomes his mantra and then the mantra for all the angry but hitherto apparently silent viewers waiting for their Jeremiah to rally behind.
Cranston – already etched in our consciousness as meth-maker Walter White in Breaking Bad, LBJ in All The Way and blacklisted screenwriter Dalton in Trumbo – is far too accomplished an actor to merely replicate Peter Finch’s Oscar-winning turn as Beale in Sidney Lumet’s 1976 film. Along with the delicious, increasingly perverse harangues, this is a portrayal memorable for its quiet moments, when Cranston’s face alone creases into a topography of hostility, fear and, above all, hopelessness. Reframe Howard’s trajectory from bloodless competence to deranged prophet manqué a solo event and you might just have a masterpiece and a master class rolled into one.
But it’s wrapped in a drama (adapted by Billy Elliott’s Lee Hall from the original screenplay) that van Hove and his designing partner Jan Versweyveld have accoutered with more satiric jabs along with their signature use of handheld videocams and filmed exteriors. That’s a lot of verbal and techno-gimcrackery tacked onto a work already in no danger of being accused of subtlety.
Perhaps the biggest gamble taken by van Hove and Versweyveld is to add an in-house dining area to the onstage studio set at stage left. Patrons are seated at tables and banquettes, and for an extra couple of C-notes, they’re served a full menu in addition to the intermission-less show.
Not to waste an opportunity, van Hove uses the eatery as the location for the film’s most famous sex scene. That’s when entertainment-division shark Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway in the film) beds downward-spiraling news chief Max Schumacher (William Holden in the film) and climaxes while spouting ratings statistics. Here, Diana (played by the miscast and out-of-her-depth Tatiana Maslany, of Orphan Black) and Max (Tony Goldwyn, convincing as a man trapped in a viper’s nest) go at it on a chair next to the dining patrons. Van Hove turns Lumet’s indelible bedroom farce into a public display of horniness. Dinner theater indeed.
The standouts among the cast are Joshua Boone as Max’s rival and especially Nick Wyman as Arthur Jensen, the suave, frighteningly logical corporate titan who outmaneuvers all comers. (Worth noting: In a film clip Diana uses to pitch a show about violence, the hooded terrorist is played – perfectly – by Eric Chayefsky, grandnephew of Paddy.)
The play emphasizes the film’s shortcomings, which include the maudlin and thankless role of Max’s abandoned wife Louise (gamely played by Alyssa Bresnahan), along with Howard’s increasingly incoherent rants. His targeting of Arabs in general and Saudis in particular has a chilling timeliness that dives deep into jingoism.
More to the point, Network was not alone in its vaunted prediction of where we were heading (The Front Page, 1931; Ace in the Hole, 1951; Sweet Smell of Success, 1957). It was released just a few months after Alan Pakula’s All the President’s Men, and what does it tell us that both films lost the Best Picture Oscar to Rocky? Maybe nothing.
But Howard Beale’s exhortation to throw your TV out the window while hollering imprecations at the universe worked the Silent Generation into a lather. Theatergoers may shake their heads at the seeming parallels to our own time, but in truth, the opposite has occurred. Today, everyone’s angry, and everyone’s hollering at the top of their Twitter accounts. And no one’s defenestrating their flat-screen TVs.
So I’m not sure what the rationale is behind a Network exhumation – other than to point out that, silent or screaming, mad or gone mad, we’re all destined to keep on taking it, forevermore. Good news!