Thursday, June 25, 2015

Birthday Take: Sidney Lumet in "Network" (1976)

Peter Finch in Network
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: Sidney Lumet
Born: June 25, 1924
Died: April 9, 2011 (86 years old)
Nomination: Best Director for Network (nominated)

The Take

Sidney Lumet was a director who challenged us as film goers. Over the course of his long, impressive, storied career, he kept finding ways to turn everyday life into fodder for hard hitting political dramas. Even then, these weren't just any films about major events. These were about real people, often getting the best performances out of people such as Henry Fonda (12 Angry Men) and Al Pacino (Dog Day Afternoon). He had a gift for bringing out the most neurotic and passionate side of America, as if a confrontational successor to Frank Capra. He wanted America to be better, and he spoke volumes about it through film. The big catch is that thanks to his passion, he has made several films that withstand the test of time and reflect to varying degrees what made him successful as a director. 

Among his most beloved works is a film that qualifies in several ways as "Ahead of its time." Consider how the media is treated nowadays and how celebrities and offensive culture fuel our attention. It seems like a post-millennium fad that is borderline voyeuristic and shameful. In fact, there's a chance that it may impact how you watch Network. While the story itself is air tight, thanks to the brilliant work by Paddy Chayevsky, the taboos that run rampant likely don't have the same sting that they once did. Even then, the way that this film "predicted" various behaviors of attention-starved, morally bankrupt journalism is still an astounding experience on almost every front.

The most notable scene, and the catalyst for the second half, is the famous Peter Finch scene. As a journalist about to quit, he gives an on air speech about how frustrated he is with the world. It ends with the iconic "I'm mad as hell" moment in which what once was a professional racket is now a fear mongering propaganda system. There may be no other moment like it, but it definitely escalates everything that follows. Suddenly it becomes behind the scenes conversations about professionalism and how best to handle bizarre situations such as these. It is in many respects a dark comedy that will also terrify you. While it isn't the last high profile Lumet movie, it is probably the last one that general audiences will associate with him. 

There have been countless essays written on the importance of Network. The interesting thing to note about Lumet's work compared to many contemporaries is how relevant his work seems to feel. While news journalism has evolved past the understanding on screen, there's a timeless feel to it. We also notice this with LGBT issues in Dog Day Afternoon or the judicial system in 12 Angry Men. We notice how good intentions can get messed up with corrupt systems very easily. In the case of this film, he challenges you to question what you see. It isn't a new notion, but one that he became a forefather in the film world. Many films have challenged professionalism and perception. Yet few manage to feel like more than relics because they don't pay attention to craft quite like Lumet. It isn't about the issue as relevant to the era. It is relevant more to the human condition.

There's no chance of forgetting Lumet, even in his passing. He may have not been the most visually impressive, but he was one of the most gripping. He didn't grab you with shocking moments, but characters that felt real enough. He created a deeper understanding of this world through the problems that we all face. Some of them have evolved or changed over time, but most of them still feel connected to the modern era. In that way, his political agenda doesn't feel forceful, but honest criticism. It may not always lead to great things, but as proven by films like Network, we now have examples of our weak spots that we must work on to be better people. Or, if you're just wanting to be entertained, they work on that level too. Lumet is quite the easy shoe-in for anything.

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