Back in 1976 Paddy Chayefsky’s Network was the first film to look critically, angrily and effectively at its small-screen offspring, television. Since it’s still available on DVD, Blu-ray and elsewhere, is there much point to Lee Hall’s adaptation, which opened tonight at London’s National Theatre?
Well, it’s variously pertinent, stimulating, amusing, old-hat and dated in its treatment of its subject, which is the purpose and power of television itself.
But what justifies the production are, first, the energy and inventiveness of Ivo van Hove’s staging and, second and most importantly, one of the finest performances I have ever seen.
That comes from Bryan Cranston, best known as the venal teacher in Breaking Bad and Michelle Dockery, late of Downton Abbey, leading a British cast gallantly battling with their all-American accents.
He plays Howard Beale, the newscaster who marks his impending retirement by telling the viewers that he’ll use his next appearance to commit suicide.
That makes his New York TV station, UBS, the focus of national news and himself a national celebrity. And far from killing himself, Beale is feted by executives obsessed with ratings. They successfully sell him as “an angry prophet denouncing the hypocrisies of our times.”
Cranston has no trouble articulately ranting and eloquently raging in neo-biblical fashion. For so versatile an performer, that’s relatively easy. What makes the performance so good, perhaps so great, is the unerring truth with which he shows us the human being inside the updated Ezekiel.
Here’s an actor who embodies anxiety, loss, pain, bewilderment, desolation with a pucker of the face or a simple, unguarded look. To do that in close-up on film or television is an achievement. To do it with no loss of subtlety in a public space as large as the National’s Lyttelton auditorium is extraordinary.
It’s even more remarkable because he retains both truth and a sort of unforced charisma on one of the broadest, deepest, most elaborate, most thickly peopled sets I’ve seen at the Lyttelton.
The designer, Jan Versweyveld, doesn’t only create a plausible TV studio, complete with monitors galore, a glass control room, and bravura bustle on the floor itself. Behind all that is a vast screen on which faces are enlarged, actors are seen separately or in duplicate, and the words “there is a temporary technical problem, do not adjust your set” come up after dozy directors belatedly wake up to Howard’s suicide threat and panicky technicians hilariously struggle to pull him from his desk.
Yes, and behind that are small screens on which ads for bras, diarrhea pills, whatever ceaselessly appear, emphasizing the network’s reliance on commerce and adding entertaining ironies to the ado, the stress, the hiring-and-firing, the corporate politicking occurring below.
Backstage right is mostly the make-up department and backstage left is a real kitchen serving an array of tables on which meals are being devoured by selected audience members—among them, when I saw the show, Mayor Bloomberg—and occasionally used by the cast for the restaurant scenes that flash by.
Hall is remarkably faithful to the original movie, retaining a time-frame which means that the first item on the news is Patty Hearst’s kidnapping. “Almost every word in the adaptation,” he writes in the introduction to the published play, “is actually Paddy’s.”
And surely he’s right to claim that Howard’s big, prophetic cry from his newsreader’s desk—“I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more!”—is “prescient about our own Age of Anger.”
Inviting ordinary American to repeat the yell, which they do on screens around the stage, he invokes joblessness, crime and the inflation that was such a problem in the 1970s.
Since we have our counterparts now, that doesn’t terminally date the show. Indeed, much of Howard’s attack still resonates. Television commandeers minds.
It distorts reality. It can make the fake true and the true fake. It trivializes, sometimes becoming a circus, a freak show, a “whorehouse.”
But is it, as Howard claims, “the most awesome goddam force in the whole godless world,” one able “to make or break presidents, popes, and prime ministers” while reducing individuals to “mindless maniacs.”
In our world of social media, where a zillion voices vie for influence, that seems even more exaggerated than it must have done in 1976. And my doubts didn’t end there. Unsurprisingly, Howard doesn’t ask his viewers to yell out their fury at Arabs, as I recall him doing in the film; but he still loses the support of the network’s suits by violently attacking its parent company’s takeover by a consortium ultimately financed by Saudi Arabia. Modern capitalism is now his foe, and on comes the network’s potentate, Richard Cordery’s deceptively mild Jensen, to elaborate the point. There is no America, no Russia, no West, no East, no democracy, he says, only bloated international corporations reshaping the world.
Well, that’s a belief less current than it was in 1976. Now perhaps we should be more concerned by what the play invites us to admire: Howard’s populist anger.
Haven’t we had enough of scattershot invective that exploits generalized frustrations and fears but offers few if any solutions? Enough of appeals to emotion rather than to thought?
As a British critic, I should shy from equating a half-crazed newsreader—for another of Cranston’s achievements is to suggest that Howard is as mentally afflicted as he’s morally sane—with an American president. But a mention of the woes of the rust belt seemed to hint at that comparison.
Nor was I gripped by the play’s sub-plot. Is there any reason for Howard’s manager and best friend, Douglas Henshall’s genial Max, to have an unhappy affair with the network’s whizkid, Dockery’s chilling Diana, except to reemphasize that she’s the careerist child of the TV age, a dangerously amoral, opportunist person.
Again, I thought that Hall’s adaptation should omit what’s important in the film, the far-left ideologues and terrorists whom Diana uses for some sensational programming. Here, they briefly materialize on film, confusing us punters and leaving a dark ending unexplained.
It hardly needs adding that the dark ending involves Cranston’s Howard. He flames outwardly, burns inwardly and, at one bizarre moment, blunders into a Lyttelton audience increasingly identified with his television public and half-squashes two of its members by perching between them.
Whether he’s doing that, or brokenly tottering across the stage in vest and shorts after a horrifying dream, or telling his fellow-Americans they’ve become “a nation of transistorized, deodorized, dehumanized beings,” I fully believed him. What an actor.