The medium is the message – or so they say. If Paddy Chayefsky’s classic TV news satire isn’t just prescient, but positively prophetic in our age of fake news, the point is pressed home by an intricate multimedia staging that makes it almost impossible to tell fact from fiction.
Majestically played by “Breaking Bad’s” Bryan Cranston, anchorman Howard Beale carves up the day’s news with increasing apoplexy in a bid for record ratings, and it’s impossible not to see our own era of rolling fury reflected. After an impromptu on-air outburst bumps his failing nightly news show ahead of its rivals, the network’s bosses push him to keep ranting on repeat. That makes Beale a lightning rod for a nation’s rage, inciting viewers to declare themselves “mad as hell” en masse, and he cuts through a corrosive and corrupted system simply by calling attention to its corruption — Trumpian tactics, as plain as day. It’s uncanny, a warning fresh from 1976, but it’s so on-the-money it can seem on-the-nose.
But Beale’s furious displays are, ultimately, unsustainable — repeated rage eventually wears itself out. Cranston artfully suggests Beale as a latter-day, middle-aged Hamlet, staring at his reflection in a dressing room mirror, caught between a genuine onscreen meltdown and a performance of madness. Chayefsky’s script, nipped and tucked for the stage by the playwright Lee Hall (“Billy Elliot”), picks that idea up in a subplot, as two television executives, Michelle Dockery’s glossily ambitious producer and Douglas Henshall’s honest old newshound, start an illicit affair that grinds down into cliché. Self-awareness, eventually, creeps into everything. All spontaneity slips into scripted reality.
That’s smartly exacerbated by van Hove’s layered production on Jan Versweyveld’s vast TV studio set. As news slides toward entertainment and Beale slips into contrivance, it gets harder and harder to tell fact from fiction. The same’s true of a staging that splits itself into multiple realities and swerves between them at speed. Live film does battle with direct address and real diners eat onstage as the actors act. Chefs cook up beef stews, waitresses glide by, and technicians call the show’s shots. Who’s acting, who’s not, and what’s the difference, either way? The whole production dances itself into distraction: as much a work of performance as a performance of work.
As Beale, Cranston glides through it all effortlessly, whether staring down the lens of a studio camera or leaping into the stalls. He, alone, knows where he stands in the scheme of things; a master of media manipulation who seems as sincere up on screen as he does sermonising out front. His presence is such that, both in mental free fall and sanguine clarity, we can’t take our eyes of him. He’s matched, move for move, by Tunji Kasim’s network head, who strides in with a real furious presence only to edge into some trope; sometimes comic book villainy, sometimes sports movie fervor.
Knowingly or not, however, van Hove himself seems stuck on repeat, reusing trickery he’s deployed before — and with diminishing returns. “Network” can feel like the storyboard of a show, one still lacking life. It’s deliberate of course, and as Hall’s script flags up the fakeries of the original film, its contrived romance, it slips further and further into a stilted, self-aware soap. Dockery, in particular, comes to feel two-dimensional and the further “Network” retreats from reality, the more we get a handle on the games being played, the more it risks leaving us bored as hell.