Short take: Sidney Lumet and TV's angry ways

  • Article by: JOHN RASH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 12, 2011 - 8:48 PM
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Director Sidney Lumet behind the camera in New York on April 14, 1967.

Photo: Sam Falk, Associated Press - Nyt

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Films directed by Sidney Lumet, who died Saturday at 86, often centered on the themes of justice and the role of the little guy in a big system.

In 1957's "12 Angry Men," Henry Fonda is the lone dissenter on a jury. In 1973's "Serpico," Al Pacino is a cop surrounded by corruption, similar to the role Treat Williams played in 1981's "Prince of the City."

In 1982's "The Verdict," Paul Newman's ambulance chaser turns into Atticus Finch after he investigates a medical malpractice suit.

But Lumet's most influential work, 1976's "Network," inverted the theme by featuring an anchorman manipulating the little guys on behalf of a big TV network.

The anchorman, Howard Beale (Peter Finch, who posthumously won an Oscar), goes mad, first threatening to commit suicide on the air and later imploring Americans to go to their windows and shout, "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!"

Time dulls how discordant the image was. After all, 1976 was the height of the "voice of God" anchor era, as current CBS chief Leslie Moonves called it. CBS's Walter Cronkite, ABC's Harry Reasoner and NBC's John Chancellor and David Brinkley were a living Mount Rushmore of TV news.

Younger viewers of "Network,' which will be screened at 2:15 a.m. April 22 (DVR alert!) on TCM, may watch and wonder what all the fuss was about.

After all, in this era of antecedent anchors like Glenn Beck and Keith Olbermann, who similarly flamed out after lighting a fire under viewers, the angry anchorman of "Network" isn't such an anachronism.

And the cynical executives of "Network" presaged the cold calculations NBC brass are making regarding reality-TV star Donald Trump, the billionaire "birther" who has shot to the top of GOP 2012 polls.

Two of those "Network" execs were at opposite ends of an exchange that's more chilling, albeit less cherished, than Beale's widely quoted "mad as hell" rant.

"You are television incarnate," Max (William Holden) tells Diana (Faye Dunaway, who also won an Oscar), "indifferent to suffering, insensitive to joy. All of life is reduced to the common rubble of humanity."

Thankfully, film as a medium did the opposite to Sidney Lumet, whose work directing more than 40 movies suggests he was a humanist to the end.

John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer. His column, Rash Report, appears on Saturdays.

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