Directed by Sidney Lumet
Relatively spoiler free review, for once.
This is but the third Lumet film I’ve seen but each of them, the other two being 12 Angry Men and Dog Day Afternoon, have left a considerable impression on me and like Rafelson whom I also have a modest familiarity with, already consider him to be one of my favorite directors.
Compared to the other two, this is likely his most ambitious. It has a large ensemble cast, is filmed in multiple locations (though mostly taking place in one network building), and has sprawling themes and scope in it’s attempt to lambaste television, the media, American culture, and everything in between. It is due to that ambition, however, that I find this film to fail a bit more in achieving its goals than the other two.
Before I get to its failures, I would like to discuss its great successes.
THIS FILM IS WELL ACTED. From the dreary, somber performance of William Holden, an actor I greatly admire, to the extreme, crazed rantings delivered by Peter Finch, every single character is top notch. Faye Dunaway must get a special mention for her portrayal as she took a character that could easily have been a trite, cliche ice queen and imbued her with a humanity that makes her tragic and sympathetic.
It is in the minor performances that I feel the film truly excels. With limited screen time, Robert Duvall dominates every scene he’s in. Unlike the gargantuan amount of angry diatribes that Finch rattles off like a machine gun, it is Duvall’s quite moments that truly demonstrate the rage he feels. Even in a man with as incredible of a career as Duvall, I feel this is easily one of his highest points. But even despite all of this greatness, there is one performance which blows me away like no other: Ned Beatty. His turn as a powerful chairman only provides him about two scenes, and one of those is almost completely silent. But in a film filled with charged monologues, his packs a punch like no other. The framing of the shot, keeping him distant and cutting to close ups of Finch’s reaction as he rants about the truth is haunting and well, intimidating. If I were to list my favorite monologues on film, this would most assuredly be on there alongside Jack Nicholson’s opening scene in the King of Marvin Gardens.
It is through these performances that the film truly finds its strength. Many would credit the script but I could easily see lesser actors folding under the pressure of it’s highly written density. It was not an easy script to approach but through sheer determination, Lumet put together a cast and crew that could give it a feel of urgency, where the camera pushes us from scene to scene and cast matches it with intensity.
It is wholly fitting that the film is about a TV “prophet” as the film is rather prophetic. They talk largely about the death of news due to television and how we focus on fluff pieces to distract us from reality. It delves into the corruption behind executives as they fabricate, dilute, alter, and even create the news all in a quest for money and ratings. Even those that seek to speak out against it become pawns in the machine. It’s a bitter, sad, angry film that is largely correct to be bitter, sad, and angry. But it also notes that there is no easy way out of this. It’s a cycle that we started and we plan on following it to the end. One needs to merely flip on Fox News or TMZ to see just how correct the predictions were.
But all this sounds great right? Well, it is. But the film also has a heavy dose of nostalgia for some past simplicity. A time before TV rotted our minds and people were better. And this is a notion I simply disagree with. The film only half heartedly seems to address the issues and fallacies of such nostalgia by making Holden’s character cheat on his wife. While this demonstrates that he’s not above the low actions of the younger generation, the film does very little else to show that he’s wrong in thinking that the world is going down the toilet. I can’t help but think “Yes, it was far with your generation, what with the rampant racism, McCarthyism, WWII, and all that jazz” but it never comes up in the film. It seems problematic for me that for a film that is so broad in its attack of virtually everything, that it wouldn’t follow suit with many of its contemporaries and attempt to demonstrate the disillusionment of “a simpler, better time”.
In addition to that, I found the voice over to be excessive and the ending to feel, ultimately, tacked on. The final scene feels so ludicrously over the top that it feels a slapstick parody rather than the biting social commentary that it is. If that aspect has been built up more steadily I would find myself more amenable to it, but as is it left me somewhat cold.
Final word- Regardless of my minor quibbles about nostalgia, voice overs, and rushed endings, this is an exceptional film that still has a lot to say about modern society. A must see for anyone looking for a great dialogue based film.