Peddling disaster: Wrong is Right (1982)

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By Scott Ross

Richard Brooks is one of those odd Hollywood characters auteurists  can’t pin down, and that’s irksome to them. They want consistency of vision; content is less important to them than a measurable idiosyncratic (preferably “personal”) style. And while I can see no particular pattern in Brooks’ work as a writer-director, nor an especially consistent style, I don’t mind that in the least: Sidney Lumet’s style changed from picture to picture, and he made some of the finest American movies of the last 60 years. What I think unites Lumet and Brooks is that they shared a sense that style and approach are, rightly, dictated by content and form. There’s little that unites, say, Elmer Gantry and The Professionals, or and Bite the Bullet, except that the man who made them was highly intelligent, often witty, and inevitably humane.

Wrong is Right was Brooks’ penultimate movie, and it was pretty much ignored by audiences of the time, who were moving deep into the Reagan Dream and didn’t wish to be disturbed from their sleep. Besides, after Network, who wanted to see another hyperkinetic satire on television? But, while Wrong is Right comes to many of the same conclusions as Network did, the picture is not warmed-over Chayefsky. If anything, it has more in common with the later Wag the Dog in its black-humored cynicism about the intersection of show biz and politics, and with Larry Gelbart’s late, almost despairing, conclusions (in work such as his Weapons of Mass Distraction) about the intractable mess Bill Clinton created with his disastrous Telecommunications Act of 1996, which has in the interim destroyed the entire concept of a free press, without which democracy cannot flourish, or even function. Twenty years after All the President’s Men celebrated the professional ethics of two dogged, independent Washington Post reporters, Clinton seemed intent on killing the very notion of a press independent of corporate ownership, much as Jeff Bezos has succeeded in turning that very paper into a conduit for CIA and DNC propaganda disguised as news. In the current journalistic void, where almost nothing one sees, hears or reads in the corporate media may be trusted, Wrong is Right seems positively prescient.

Brooks based his screenplay on a thriller by Charles McCarry concerning the collision of a bitter American revolutionary, a star American reporter, and the President. Transferring the revolutionary aspect to the Middle East, the filmmaker fashioned a wild, engaging satire that, if only occasionally delivering a line that makes you laugh out loud, is never less than thoroughly engaging. Brooks’ reporter here is an adventurer-turned-journalist (Sean Connery), his revolutionary an Arabian terrorist (Henry Silva, of all people) and his President (George Grizzard) a football-obsessed career politician intent on winning a close election with a Reaganesque hack (Leslie Neilsen). Added to this already heady brew is a gung-ho General called Wombat (Robert Conrad); a serpentine CIA chief (G.D. Spradlin); a ratings-mad network honcho (Robert Webber) who could quite easily be mistaken for Les Moonves giggling about how much money CBS was making from the Trump candidacy; a smart, savvy, main-chance grabbing black female Vice-President (Rosalind Cash) bearing the last name of Carter’s predecessor; a natty international arms dealer (Hardy Krüger) who, as these types tend, isn’t concerned with who gets a pair of nuclear bombs, as long as he gets the cash; and a slick, opportunistic Presidential aid (Dean Stockwell) the like of whom Aaron Sorkin would never have presented on The West Wing. (John Saxon also shows up, as a CIA agent who is the last word in sangfroid, Katherine Ross appears—all too briefly for my taste—as a journalist with a secret life, and Ron Moody contributes a neat cameo as the Mideast potentate who sets the whole, blazing ball rolling. As an added frisson for the modern viewer, a young Jennifer Jason Leigh pops up as a teenager only slightly less appalling than Leigh herself became as an adult.)

Although Wrong is Right clocks in at nearly two hours, the pace of the picture is so fast there is never the slightest opportunity for longueurs. That breakneck structure is attained largely through Brooks’ tight, economical (and rather bracingly theatrical) writing style, as a word or phrase uttered by one character leads directly to its echo in the mouth of another, sometimes continents away. Metaphorically, Brooks’ dialogue plums the rich vein usually mined by Gelbart himself; think of the ironically malaprop-spouting Colonel Flagg as the progenitor of nearly every character, and you get a sense of the keen wit and wordplay Brooks invests into what, on the surface, is the stuff of international thrillers. The look of the picture is itself almost like TV itself as it once was: The cinematographer Fred J. Koenekamp’s use of deep-focus and bright color would not have been out of place in a Universal television movie of the week. And if the infrequent use of special effects is somewhat shoddy, those moments pass quickly enough—although, in the immediate post-Star Wars era, they must have seemed pretty shoddy to those moviegoers who actually purchased a ticket.

As a taste of Brooks’ delicious dramaturgical style, here’s Connery’s Patrick Hale after he has suggested to Webber that the network obtain Hardy’s suitcase bombs and been rebuked with the accusation that he’s practicing “checkbook journalism”:

What kind of journalism was it when television paid half a million dollars for an exclusive on the Bay of Pigs? A million dollars to Nixon, to apologize coast to coast? CBS paid Haldeman, Eisenhower, and Johnson. NBC paid John Dean and Robert Kennedy’s assassin. ABC paid Lieutenant Calley, and for breakfast, served up the My Lai massacre. And what about the killer I put on television? From death row to the electric chair, fried meat on prime time. You paid $100,000 for that. Paid it to the killer! Do you call that journalism?

We’re in show business, baby. Make them laugh. Make them cry . Make them buy, by and by. We peddle disaster. Violence—it’s commercial! Blood and tears and football and cheers. Performers, superstars. Get them on, get them off. Next, next, fast, fast! We’re in the entertainment business, and there’s nothing wrong with that… if you call it that.

That no one in the business now will call it that makes Wrong is Right a movie less out of time than far ahead of it.

Text copyright 2017 by Scott Ross

 

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The Americanization of Emily (1964)

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By Scott Ross

Paddy Chayefsky had been present on the movie screen for some time, particularly through adaptations of his more noted television dramas (Marty in 1955, The Catered Affair in ’56, The Bachelor Party in ’57) and stage plays (Middle of the Night, 1959) and via a 1958 original, The Goddess starring Kim Stanley as a thinly-disguised Monroe figure. These titles largely reflected the “little man” playwright niche into which Chayefsky had been crammed — much as Tennessee Williams represented, to those without perceptive imagination and who needed a quick hook on which to hang a complicated, poetic dramatist, sex and Southern Gothic. Beginning with The Tenth Man in 1959 and Gideon in 1961, however, Chayefsky’s stage work took on a deeper, darker and more allegorical word-richness.

He became drunk with language, discovering a gift for rhetoric unique among American dramatists. In transliterating William Bradford Huie’s short novel The Americanization of Emily, this “new” Chayefsky found his first great, personal expression in a movie.

I’m not a believer, as so many in Hollywood (and among the general reading public, shrunken and misshapen as it has become) that a novel is, somehow, “incomplete” until it has been made into a film. Great literature, with a few noteworthy exceptions (To Kill a Mockingbird, Enemies… a love story, A Room with a View, Maurice) seldom translates to great film. One is far better off approaching second- or even third-rate prose, and re-imagining its essentials for the screen than attempting to translate great narrative prose to a dramatic medium. And while Huie at his considerable best was a fine, if by now largely forgotten, stylist, the film Emily trumps the novel Emily in nearly every way.

Where Huie is largely serious, Chayefsky injects a comic-satiric tone. His chief device, which both burnishes the narrative and has conferred on the film much of its latter-day cult status, is in making his male lead, Charlie Madison, an advocate of cowardice. In the midst of war — perhaps especially a “good” one like World War II — it’s a bracing bit of sanity. It’s also one of the reasons the movie’s lead, James Garner, regards The Americanization of Emily as his favorite among his own films. (His co-star, Julie Andrews, shares Garner’s feelings.) That insistence, both by Charlie and by Chayefsky on the nobility of the coward, may have contributed to the movie’s relative failure at the domestic box-office (it didn’t even rate a review in the New York Times.) Another factor may have been that Emily was released after Mary Poppins; few who loved that Disney musical were quite ready for a more “earthy” (and non-musical) Andrews.

Chayefsky also concocted the plot’s farcical angle, which quickly takes first a desperate, then a seemingly tragic, turn as Melvyn Douglas’ otherwise meritorious Admiral, suffering a sort of breakdown, decrees that “the first dead man on Omaha beach must be a sailor”… and orders Charlie to film the event.

Emily was shot well, if without any great distinction, by the workmanlike Arthur Hiller. It was, however, marvelously scored by Johnny Mandel, and featured a superb supporting cast including the always admirable Douglas along with James Coburn, Keenan Wynn, William Windom, Alan Sues and the great British monologist Joyce Grenfell, beautifully cast as Andrews’ “dotty,” grieving mother.

It’s in Charlie’s first meeting with Mrs. Barham that Chayefsky scores his greatest rhetorical coup — and his star’s undying gratitude — as Garner delivers, with astonishingly varied understatement, one of the truly great monologues in American movies. It ought to be carved in stone somewhere, and memorized by every service-aged adolescent, and is well worth reproducing here, more or less in full:

I discovered I was a coward. That’s my new religion. I’m a big believer in it. Cowardice will save the world. It’s not war that’s insane, you see. It’s the morality of it. It’s not greed or ambition that makes wars. It’s goodness. Wars are always fought for the best of reasons: for liberation or manifest destiny – always against tyranny and always in the interest of humanity. So far this war, we’ve managed to butcher some 10,000,000 humans in the interest of humanity. Next war, it seems we’ll have to destroy all of man in order to preserve his damn dignity. It’s not war that’s unnatural to us. It’s virtue. As long as valor remains a virtue, we shall have soldiers. So, I preach cowardice. Through cowardice, we shall all be saved…

I don’t trust people who make bitter reflections about war, Mrs. Barham. It’s always the generals with the bloodiest records who are the first to shout what a hell it is. It’s always the war widows who lead the Memorial Day parades.

We shall never end wars, Mrs. Barham, by blaming it on ministers and generals or warmongering imperialists or all the other banal bogeys. It’s the rest of us who build statues to those generals and name boulevards after those ministers. The rest of us who make heroes of our dead and shrines of our battlefields. We wear our widow’s weeds like nuns, Mrs. Barham, and perpetuate war by exalting its sacrifices. My brother died at Anzio… An everyday soldier’s death, no special heroism involved. They buried what pieces they found of him. But my mother insists he died a brave death and pretends to be very proud…

Now my other brother can’t wait to reach enlistment age. That’ll be in September… May be ministers and generals who blunder us into wars, Mrs. Barham, but the least the rest of us can do is to resist honoring the institution. What has my mother got for pretending bravery was admirable? She’s under constant sedation and terrified she may wake up one morning and find her last son has run off to be brave.

All other text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

The Hospital (1971) / Network (1976)

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By Scott Ross

Don’t ask me to choose a favorite between these two outrageous panegyrics by Paddy Chayefsky. In his gifts for dark comic exaggeration and exhilarating histrionic rhetoric, the late playwright had no peer, and these talents were never more manifest than in this pair of lacerating black farces. Contemporary critics were put off by Chayefsky’s occasionally hysterical (and, it was alleged, messianic and reactionary) takes on modern medicine and the corporatization of television, but as the years go by they seem positively prescient. It’s impossible to imagine these movies, with their rich verbal acrobatics, being made today, at least in Hollywood, and it’s no accident that Chayefsky won screenplay Oscars for both.

The Hospital has so many great actors in roles large and small that its ensemble, like that of All the President’s Men, is virtually a Who’s Who of 1970s thespic artists: George C. Scott, Diana Rigg, Barnard Hughes, Nancy Marchand, Frances Sternhagen, Roberts Blossom, Lenny Baker, Robert Walden, Richard Dysart, Katherine Helmond and Stockard Channing; Hughes is so good he’s got two roles, both marvelous.

“I am the fool for Christ, and Paraclete of Caborca.”

Network’s cast is equally stellar, with William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Peter Finch, Robert Duvall, Ned Beatty and Beatrice Straight firing off Chayefsky’s often achingly funny verbal eruptions in the leading roles. The number of Oscars awarded for the movie’s actors is a measure of the screenwriter’s abounding gifts: Finch, Dunaway and Straight were given statuettes (Finch posthumously), while Beatty — like Straight — was nominated for a single monologue.

“You have meddled with the primal forces of nature, and YOU… WILL… ATONE!”

Finch is superb, and his angry exhortation “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” became an instant catchphrase — ironic in that this seemingly populist watch-cry is uttered by a complete madman.

But it’s Holden who keeps the whole thing together, and — as in The Wild Bunch — his great, sad, worn and lived-in countenance at this stage of his life is one of the most moving faces in the movies. Network was his last major role in an important movie, and he gave it a lifetime’s passion. Arthur Hiller, never an inspired director, did well enough by The Hospital, as he did with Chayefsky’s great, underrated The Americanization of Emily, while Sidney Lumet filmed Network like a sly documentarian, tongue firmly in cheek.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross