Judged on his gems

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The Weekend Australian - Review - - Television -

WHEN he died a year ago at 86, Sid­ney Lumet was mourned as one of the mas­ters of Amer­i­can cinema. Along with Richard Mul­li­gan, John Franken­heimer, Franklin J. Schaffner and oth­ers, he was the most durable of a dis­tin­guished group of Hol­ly­wood film­mak­ers to emerge from the golden years of Amer­i­can tele­vi­sion in the 1950s, mak­ing his name with what was es­sen­tially a TV play, the jury room drama 12 An­gry Men. The 50-odd films to his credit in­clude mas­ter­pieces such as The Ver­dict, Fail-safe and Dog Day Af­ter­noon, as well as some in­ex­pli­ca­ble lapses and fol­lies — among them The Wiz, an all-black ver­sion of The Wizard of Oz, now best for­got­ten.

Many would rank Net­work (Mon­day, 2.30pm, Movie Greats) his great­est achieve­ment: a fe­ro­cious satire on the ethics of Amer­i­can TV news chan­nels, with a bit­ing script by Paddy Chayef­sky that seems no less rel­e­vant to­day. The film won act­ing Os­cars for Peter Finch, Faye Du­n­away and Beatrice Straight. Also show­ing this week is Lumet’s bril­liant black crime thriller Be­fore the Devil Knows You’re Dead (Satur­day, 8.30pm, Show­time Ac­tion), in which a cash-strapped Philip Sey­mour Hoffman per­suades his born­loser brother (Ethan Hawke) to rob a jew­ellery store for some quick, easy money. Nat­u­rally the plan goes ter­ri­bly wrong. This dark blend of heist movie and wrench­ing fam­ily drama was Lumet’s last film (in 2007); a fit­ting end to a bril­liant ca­reer.

One of the re­cur­ring themes in his films was of­fi­cial cor­rup­tion, and I think he would have loved Eric Roth’s screen­play for The In­sider (Sun­day, 5am, Movie Greats), which com­bined a pen­e­trat­ing study of the ethics of Big To­bacco with a Net­work- style ex­pose of a par­tic­u­larly dark episode in the an­nals of CBS tele­vi­sion’s re­spected news di­vi­sion.

Di­rected by Michael Mann, it’s one of the best real-life dra­mas about cor­po­rate mal­prac­tice, con­cen­trat­ing on the ef­forts of a mid­dle-rank­ing to­bacco ex­ec­u­tive (Rus­sell Crowe) to blow the whis­tle on al­leged coverups by his bosses. CBS pres­sured its 60 Min­utes pro­ducer (Al Pa­cino) to pull a seg­ment on the scan­dal as it was about to go to air. Grip­ping and sober­ing en­ter­tain­ment.

For a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive on the pains of cor­po­rate Amer­ica, I rec­om­mend The Com­pany Men (Mon­day, 8.30pm, Movie One), di­rected by John Wells, one of the writ­ers of The West Wing. The US is in the grip of a re­ces­sion and high­level ex­ecs at GTX, a Bos­ton man­u­fac­tur­ing con­glom­er­ate, are vic­tims of down­siz­ing. For Bobby Walker (Ben Af­fleck), the shame is the worst part: how to break the news to his wife and con­ceal it from his trou­bled teenaged son. For Phil Wood­ward (Chris Cooper), 30 years with the firm, it’s even tougher: per­haps if he dyed his hair and lost a lit­tle weight there’d be an­other open­ing some­where. And Kevin Cost­ner can al­ways find jobs for brick­ies and car­pen­ters. There are mov­ing in­sights here, and Wells gives the film an oddly in­spi­ra­tional twist by ex­tolling the virtues of hon­est man­ual labour — as if the thought had never oc­curred to us.

Michael Haneke’s The White Rib­bon (Sun­day, 6.35am, Show­time Two) looks at the psy­cho­log­i­cal roots of fas­cism. The set­ting is a vil­lage in north­ern Ger­many on the eve of World War I. When a se­ries of trou­bling in­ci­dents dis­rupts the nor­mal pat­tern of vil­lage life, twin au­thor­ity-fig­ures (a no­ble­man and a Protes­tant pas­tor) im­pose harsh dis­ci­pline and bru­tal pun­ish­ments on young of­fend­ers. Haneke has said that the chil­dren in the film would have grown to be ma­ture adults dur­ing the Nazi era. Has their up­bring­ing con­trib­uted to the hor­rors of Nazi tyranny? This is a deeply un­set­tling and gravely beau­ti­ful film that raises many ques­tions and pro­vides no an­swers.

Mon­day, 8.30pm, Movie One

Mon­day, 2.30pm, Movie Greats

Satur­day, 8.30pm, Show­time Ac­tion

Sun­day, 6.35am, Show­time Two

Peter Finch is mad as hell in Sid­ney Lumet’s Net­work

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