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Controversial Classics Volume 2: The Power of the Media DVD Review

Controversial Classics Volume 2: The Power of the Media

March 31, 2006

Director: Director: Sidney Lumet, Alan J. Pakula,
Starring: Al Pacino, John Cazale, James Broderick, Charles Durning, Chris Sarandon, Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford, Jack Warden, Jason Robards, Hal Holbrook, Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Peter Finch, Robert Duvall, Ned Beatty, ,

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DVD Review

The 1970s was a fertile time for challenging, politically charged movies. Thanks to Easy Rider (1969) a lot of riskier material was getting green-lit by the major Hollywood studios and, in some cases; they were commenting on the current political climate or being socially conscious. Warner Brothers’ second volume of Controversial Classics focuses on three important films from the ‘70s that critiqued the role of the media.

Dog Day Afternoon (1975) is based on an actual event that took place in Brooklyn, New York in August 1973 and has become one of Al Pacino’s signature roles. It also features lean, efficient filmmaking from Sidney Lumet who establishes life in the city through an expertly edited montage that shows people at work and at play with blue collar types, office workers and people of all races – a diverse melting pot.

The premise is genius in its simplicity: three men hold-up a bank. One bails early on leaving Sonny (Pacino), the leader, and Sal (Cazale), his right hand man. These guys are desperate and inexperienced and you can see it in Pacino’s wild eyes. Of course, things don’t go as planned. The police and the FBI arrive and it becomes a massive hostage-taking ordeal. The media and all kinds of curiousity seekers arrive and Sonny wisely uses all of this attention to his advantage, making the police look bad and the public sympathetic to his cause. He needs money for his gay lover to get an operation to become a woman.

Lumet walks a fine line between gritty crime film and absurdist comedy. The film is a prime example of an economy of direction as the filmmaker wastes no time. Pacino’s intense performance constantly teeters on the edge of hysteria but it is always rooted in heartfelt realism that makes him a sympathetic character. Dog Day Afternoon would go on to inspire other movies, most notably a comic variation known as Quick Change (1990) starring Bill Murray.

Based on Washington Post journalists, Bob Woodward (Redford) and Carl Bernstein’s (Hoffman) investigation into the Watergate Hotel burglary, All the President’s Men (1976) takes a fascinating look at how these two low level reporters exposed one of the biggest crimes in U.S. government history.

Director Alan J. Pakula (The Parallax View) is able to keep what is essentially just over two hours of guys talking on phones and interviewing people so interesting through his no-nonsense direction coupled with Gordon Willis’ (The Godfather) textured cinematography and William Goldman’s (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) Academy Award winning screenplay that sticks strictly to the facts whenever possible.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that a killer cast with the likes of Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford, Jack Warden, Jason Robards and Hal Holbrook bring their real life counterparts to the big screen in such compelling fashion. What makes the film work so well is that it shows all the hard, tedious legwork that Woodward and Bernstein had to do in order to break the case: countless phone calls and knocking on doors trying to get anybody remotely linked to the burglary or those arrested to talk. All the President’s Men was a watershed film that would go on to inspire other hard-hitting, investigative journalism movies like The Insider (1999) and Shattered Glass (2003).

Network (1976) is a savage satire about how everything on television, including the news, is governed by ratings. By the time this movie had been made network news had already declined significantly in quality since the heady days of Edward R. Murrow.

Veteran news anchor Howard Beale (Finch) has just been fired because his ratings have been gradually dropping. His personal life is a shambles and he’s got two weeks left on the job with nothing to lose. On his next broadcast, he announces that he’s going to “blow his brains out” on his last show. Plans are made for the news division to be reduced in size as it is no longer an independent body but has to answer to their budget. So, Beale’s director (Holden) lets the man speak his mind on his last broadcast. And so begins a brilliant attack on the absurdity of television driven by ratings that seemed somewhat outrageous at the time but is perfectly normal now.

Paddy Chayefsky’s great screenplay, coupled with Sidney Lumet’s excellent direction zeroes in on exactly what is wrong with television and news in particular. Content and objectivity are often sacrificed for sensational stories that will draw in more viewers. One executive (Dunaway) even suggests following a group of bank robbers/terrorists, chronicling their weekly exploits, like, as she puts it, “Joseph Stalin and his merry band of Bolsheviks.”

Network underlines the root problem which is money. Everything is driven by it and this begins to change not only how the news is reported but what exactly is being covered. Among many things, the film eerily anticipates such current trends as reality television making it as relevant today as it was back then.

Special Features:

The first disc on this new special edition of Dog Day Afternoon features an audio commentary with veteran director Sidney Lumet. It’s great to hear him talk about a movie he is clearly proud of. He talks about how close it is to the real events, how he worked with the actors, the lack of music, and production anecdotes, like how he cast John Cazale. Lumet speaks eloquently about why Pacino is one of the greatest actors and also points out the bits that were improvised in the moment by the cast who were responding to their environment. The filmmaker does a great job of taking us through this landmark movie in this informative commentary.

The second disc features “The Making of Dog Day Afternoon” that consists of four featurettes that can be viewed separately or altogether. This documentary examines, briefly, the actual incident that the film is based on and how hostage situations were never the same after it. Frank Pierson talks about the challenges of writing the screenplay. Interestingly, Al Pacino didn’t see himself in the role and passed but the producer eventually persuaded him to read it again and he decided to do it. Most of the main cast and crew contribute new interviews, including Pacino, Lumet, Charles Durning and Chris Sarandon in this excellent retrospective look at this important film.

“Lumet: Filmmaker” is a vintage featurette on the director done during the making of Dog Day Afternoon. We see him in action, directing the cast on location. This is a nice snapshot of the man back in the day.

On the All the President’s Men DVD, Robert Redford contributes an audio commentary where he does an excellent job explaining why the film opens the way it does. He points out that they literally crafted scenes from Woodward and Bernstein’s notes. Redford speaks highly of working with Hoffman and admires their teamwork. He gives his impressions of the real Woodward and Bernstein and how he, as an actor, tried to capture the essence of the man. Redford delivers a decent track with intelligent observations on the film’s look and its themes.

The second disc features an in-depth, retrospective documentary entitled, “Telling the Truth About Lies: The Making of All the President’s Men.” Most of the major cast and crew member are back for new interviews, including Redford, Hoffman, Goldman and Woodward and Bernstein. The doc traces the film’s origins, from Redford’s interest in the story as it was happening to the meticulous detail in recreating what these guys did on film.

“Woodward and Bernstein: Lighting the Fire” examines these two men’s legacy. Their Watergate coverage has inspired countless generations of journalists. The notion of investigative journalism is defined and how a story like Watergate would be handled now with the presence of the Internet is also examined.

“Out of the Shadows: The Man Who Was Dee

J.D. is a freelance writer who is currently doing research for a book on the films of Michael Mann. He likes reading anything written by Jack Kerouac, James Ellroy, J.D. Salinger, Harlan Ellison or Thomas Pynchon. J.D. is currently addicted to the T.V. series 24 and enjoys drinking a lot of Sprite. This is not a blatant plug for the beverage but if they ever decided to give him a lifetime supply he certainly wouldn’t turn them down.
view all DVD reviews by JD Lafrance

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