Network (1976)

Written by Vincent on January 9, 2015

The Primal Forces of Network

According to the Writers Guild of America the greatest screenplay of all time belongs to Casablanca. A sentimental favourite, no doubt, worthy for a handful of catchy one-liners capped off with a convincing dump-the-dame speech. While Bogie plays himself, Bergman, who may have been the most beautiful woman of all time, didn't have much to say. The best moments in Casablanca were, in fact, the silent ones, and without Bogie and Bergie's chemistry, it probably wouldn't have made the top 10.

Best screenplay suggests best story, best plot, best characters and dialogue; best combination of drama, comedy, intrigue, emotional engagement, suspense, social and political relevance; one peppered with casual everydayisms, baited with humour and simmering with intelligence, threatening to release an experiential payload of euphoric proportions; a work that can transcend genre and demographics, build up simultaneously on various levels, plumbed by the weight of it's essential voice, sending out intuitive signals, rippling with perplexing channels and insightful glimpses that are symbolically blended into plain words on paper; all with a properly superb balance of sex, wit, desire, comfort, fear, anger and wisdom in an accelerated narrative leading us to a magnificent crescendo and--fade out--leaving us to wonder. Furthermore, great screenplays serve the motion-picture medium's incomparable ability to effortlessly jump time and space. Casablanca is static and contained, framed and nailed to the wall: a pretty photograph.

Despite the WGA's endorsement, there can only be one candidate good enough to qualify for the all-time best screenplay, and fittingly it goes to the all-time best screenplay writer. Paddy Chayefsy's Network has dazzled us for four decades and counting. The scene where a mob of murderous bank-robbing terrorists who have their own reality TV show bicker over the wording of their contract alone demonstrates we are dealing with a higher grade of pertinent genius. The corporate cosmology of Arthur Jensen, a pivotal lesson in global economics, tops it off, leaving all Network's competitors in the dust, burying any climactic speech written before or since, Bogie's famous brush-off farewell included, thus slamming the lid down on anything Casablanca can play. As for ill-fated romances, the doomed alliance between old-school journalism (Holden) seduced and corrupted into severing his ties with his compassionate spouse to hastily shack up with the opportunistic post-modern media wench (Dunaway) is fraught with more complications than anything Casablanca can muster, and it's only one of the sub-plots.

Of course Network is most famous for the "I'm mad as hell" rant, which swells from a nuanced and complex story arc demonstrating the rise and fall of an iconic media star. Hell-raising public mischief aside, Howard Beale's profound narrative leads off with a suicidally desperate, washed-up newsman who impulsively hits a nerve, rockets to stardom as a modern-day prophet, then is shaped and sensationalized as an overcooked parody by the media, stigmatized by maniacal Fox-news-like delusions that overtake him until he gets too big for his britches and needs a walloping corporate scolding, causing his starry streak to fizzle out, before getting gunned down by the greedy TV execs who made him, leaving hapless undiscriminating audiences to grasp for the next new thing.

Network is inspired writing that doesn't require heart-throbbing movie stars to pull it off. It could have been directed by my illiterate grandmother, shot on VHS in a dingy church basement, performed by eager boy scouts and girl guides, and it would still be the greatest screenplay of all time, one not just for the spectacle of projecting on a giant screen, but for doubling as a giant mirror with just enough sugar-coated satire to swallow the shitty truth about ourselves. Though calling _Network _a satire is like calling Hamlet a murder mystery. Satire is either spineless and passive-aggressive, or specific and short-lived. Chayefsky's bombastic pronouncements become more exceptional and relevant each passing year.