Paddy Chayefsky’s gobsmacking 1976 film satire Network (directed by Sidney Lumet), provides a searing example of the noxious morphing of Broadcast News toward lurid entertainment. Also, its timeless themes about the ubiquity of corruption even in the banal news delivery business cauterize with laser-like precision. In transferring this amazing work to Broadway, only a devilishly adroit director could improve upon an already ingenious rendering of the nullification of the free press by corporate greed. It takes genius to tackle the already fantastic. Unsurprisingly, Ivo Van Hove has applied his brilliance to bring Network to Broadway after its London run last year.
The innovative Van Hove and the inestimably formidable Bryan Cranston as Howard Beale, the uncanny, knight-errant, news anchor of fictional UBS make Network a mind-blaster. Cranston’s performance leaves one speechless. With humanity and ferocity, Cranston believably renders Beale’s epiphany about his own life. As a result he elicits our compassion and captivates us into astonishment. We watch open-mouthed as he steps into Beale’s cavernous soul-depth. And we feel the emotional pull of Cranston’s Everyman and journey with him to the Beale abyss. Cranston achieves an immediacy and truth that coheres with our own empathetic understanding. We’ve been there! Truly, even if we remain complacent with every privilege in the world, we feel “mad as hell and refuse to take it anymore!”
Exhilarated with wonder after seeing the production, I recall the profound themes Van Hove’s exalted direction and Lee Hall’s succinctly adapted script present. Indeed, these resound for us today in the fake news Trumposphere. Increasingly, the news spills out “shock and awe” entertainment. For the sake of profits, facts, information and sourced material shift to the back burner. Judgment and reason become sacrificed to the audience lust for titillation. The difficulties of divining the differences between truth, reality, lies, obfuscations increase. Content appears subject to media company editors who must carefully negotiate around the mission of profit and not upset advertisers. The confounded viewer eventually stops seeking to be informed as a civil obligation. Notably, viewers have been overwhelmed by the cacophony of lies from the media nexus which depends on advertising dollars.
Sadly, as Network illustrates, if truth and a truth deliverer do somehow break through the confusion of white noise and find a following as Howard Beale seemingly does, he and his opinions, “the truth” are commoditized. Finally, when the truth is hijacked for its profitability, the service of one whose opinions authoritatively voice society’s zeitgeist will be undermined. Truth can never be commoditized, regardless of how much its seekers long to hear it. The once noble concepts of a free press and information sharing to keep the public informed and knowledgeable disintegrate in CEOs bank accounts.
Van Hove and Hall have reconfigured the already brilliant Paddy Chayefsky script to another level of currency with a few modifications. Though the time period and characters appear similar, in the case of Max Schumacher (the fine Tony Goldwyn), and Diana Christensen (Tatiana Maslany distills all we dislike about the rapacious female executive), their self-destruction appears to be more trenchant.
The ironies of Network’s plot development are still precious. The fired Howard Beale whose ratings slump cannot be overcome states on the air that he intends to kill himself on next week’s program. His unauthorized announcement creates a furor and a ratings spike. Indeed, competitor news media make Howard Beale front page headlines. From this point on Beale’s inner unraveling moves to center stage. Beale becomes the stuff of media legend. As the journey of his personal enlightenment grows with power and truth, he and it are commoditized. Enabled by his friend Max Schumacher (Tony Goldwyn), and ambitious up-and-comer Diana Christensen (Tatiana Maslany), who usurps Max Schumacher’s job with seductive abandon, Beale ends up becoming the superlative ratings darling of UBS.
Essentially the dynamic twists of Hall’s adaptation follow Chayefsky’s sardonic overload brought to an absurdist conclusion. Beale’s breakdown drives him to the edge of sanity and a fool’s genius. Notably, as Cranston negotiates Beale’s travels from the hackneyed to sublime revelation, he leaves us spellbound. His “mad as hell” rant arises from Cranston’s core of understanding the human condition. As he explodes with humanity and inner beauty, we align ourselves with his emotion. We marvel at what he has made us feel.
Despite Max’s plea for decency to take Howard off the air and stop exploiting his breakdown, Diana Christensen promotes Beale as the angry “prophet” of the airwaves. As spokesperson for millions of individuals, Beale enamors his fans with unscripted “truths.” On “The Howard Beale Show,” converted into something akin to a game show with us as the live audience, Beale’s ravings resound with passion.
Meanwhile, confounded by his own immorality and dissipation, Max leaves his wife Louise. I love what Alyssa Bresnahan does with Louise’s aria. Going against his own best interests, Max has an affair with the obscenely ambitious Christensen. As their relationship begins to crumble, the climax of the cacophony of chaos peaks. Cannily, Beale crosses a line that must never be crossed. He mucks with the corporate restructuring of debt. And Arthur Jensen, the CEO of CCA, the parent company, gets mightily pissed. Nick Wyman’s subtle, grinning malevolence as Jensen is just great.
Largely due to Bryan Cranston’s fantastic performance as Howard Beale, Network echos in our remembrance. As Howard Beale communicates truth to his television audience, Cranston brings our consciousness into the greater understanding of who we are as human beings. In Beale’s realization of who he can be, he reminds us of our value and our spirit and soul worth. When Cranston’s Beale expresses the anger which is more than anger and rage that is more than rage, it is as if he grasps our being, and we tie in with him forming a collective consciousness.
Indeed, Beale takes us to a level of human sanctity that was unimaginable at the top of the production. When at one point Cranston’s Beale joins the audience and sits next to two individuals for a confidential moment (he’s incredible in delivering the irrevocable ineffability of live theater), Van Hove turns the cameras on us. We see ourselves projected on television. It is impossible to ignore the truths of what we experience in the shadow of Beale’s soul light. Irrevocably, we awake and feel intensely because Cranston trusts Beale’s heart and conjoins himself and us with it.
For his part Van Hove has rendered the dynamism, artificiality and hyperbolic humming chaos of the TV production newsroom with seamless facility. We watch the recreated TV Studio live! Thus, we see the news projected on the big screen as camera operators live-capture Cranston’s Beale. And we note his various pilot fish (make-up, hair and clothing assistants, etc.), fussing over him. The immediacy of their actions powers up to build suspense about watching the “TV show.” Of course it is a show within a show. And we all become players!
Interestingly, the authenticity and the boardroom scenes reinforce the theme that “profit-motives propel television content” (we think of social media), to addict and brainwash. Media folks need us to appreciate sensationalism over rationality. And their obsession with the bottom line strips and devours the decency of all who work for the CCA company. Most importantly, we note the downward trend away from kindness, generosity and concern for others in Christensen, Frank Hackett (Joshua Boone), Harry Hunter (Julian Elijah Martinez) and others. In fact all who create such entertainment news reflect a craven amorality.
Additionally, Van Hove’s striking re-imagining of a TV studio and news room as a live play by play brings the action into our laps. We serve a dual function. With sardonic humor, Van Hove makes us a live and interactive, participatory audience as we applaud to “Applause” signs. Yet simultaneously, we watch the action on smaller screens featuring various channels which morph to the large screen for Beale’s news program. We participate, yet we distance ourselves as the voyeurs of TV’s “non-participatory experience.”
Interestingly, this meld of the two roles we play as audience members during “The Howard Beale Show” creates dissonance. For ultimately, we “get” that as the media audience (especially social media), we choose/control the content which is as good as our viewing tastes.
This production and all who create its fever, furor and fabulousness from actors to scene and technical designers impart a momentum that runs like an electric wave which ignites all it touches. The encounter provokes. It is as if by watching the downfall of Howard Beale, UBS, CCA and everything that was once moral and decent in the news business, we watch our own participation/contribution to it.
Chayefsky’s and Hall’s Network is the harbinger of the current social media devolution. “The news” has been atomized to fit every opinion or position based on skewed information and ear tickling “facts.” And it is these statements “of fact” that force us to a site like Snopes for fact-checking. Ironically, the site speaks more credibly of its being relied upon by non-readers and non-researchers than for its accuracy.
The greatness of this production is in its expression as an immersive consciousness-raising satire/comedy/drama. For it compels us to interact with cognition and emotion in a weird connect/disconnect. On one level, Network, especially in its addendum video clips (no spoiler alert-you’ll just have to see it), becomes an intriguing call to action. We can be better if we demand better and do not settle for less. On the other hand, Van Hove shepherds Cranston, the excellent ensemble and the artistic designers to provide an incredible one-of-a-kind entertainment that makes us think long after we’ve left the Belasco Theatre.
Special kudos to Jan Versweyveld (Scenic & Lighting Design), Tal Yarden (Video Design), An D’Huys (Costume Design), Eric Sleichim (Sound & Music).
Don’t miss this one. You will regret not seeing Bryan Cranston and this fiery re-imagining of Network at the Belasco Theatre. The production runs with no intermission at the Belasco Theatre (111 44th Street), through 17 March. You can pick up tickets at their website.