Network (1976)

Director: Sidney Lumet

Starring: William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Peter Finch, Robert Duvall, Ned Beatty, Beatrice Straight.

Network is forty years old this year. When it was originally released it caused something of a sensation. Audiences had never experienced such biting satire, especially this deliciously barbed kind that related to the world’s most popular obsession: television.
The picture begins with an introduction to one of cinemas most unlikely heroes: the alcoholic over the hill news anchor – Howard Beale (Peter Finch, in his final role). Beale’s ratings have slumped to an unacceptable level and the powers that be have decided to fire Howard and replace him with somebody less morose. It is left to his long-time friend and head of the news department at the UBS network, Max Schumacher (William Holden) to break the news to his friend. That night the two friends get wildly drunk and in the midst of a boozy conversation, Howard reveals that he is going to commit suicide on air. Max jokes that his ratings will go through the roof as a result. During Howard’s next broadcast, he reveals live on air that he is going to kill himself, which starts a chain reaction of tumultuous events at the struggling network.
Ambitious programming executive Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway), eager to enhance her reputation, decides to encourage Howard to flesh out his rambling prophecies into a full blown TV show, complete with psychics and various fruitcakes that will capture the imagination and mood of the angry and disillusioned nation.
Network is so much more than a man having a nervous breakdown on camera. It is a dissection of what the pulse of the world was back in the tumultuous seventies. The United States were still dealing with the fallout from losing the Vietnamese war. Their economy was in the toilet. Richard Nixon and the Watergate scandal had caused untold damage to the national psyche. Oil prices fluctuated wildly. Terrorists were hijacking planes and issuing demands that were usually met.
Television is the most powerful propaganda tool there has ever been. Network dared to examine the reasons why this was the case. It explored the machinations and Machiavellian behaviour behind the scenes of what running a television network was all about and why we wilfully choose to dilute reality through the filter of television.
In Howard Beale’s rambling prophecies, he dared to detail all of the shortcomings and express the real truths that the world was refusing to acknowledge. In the forty years since its release, Beale’s ‘prophecies’ are frighteningly relevant today. His commentary on contemporary society of the 70’s and all of its shortcomings is full of uncomfortable truths about how we live in the present.
The sense of realism is palpable. Master Director Sidney Lumet, who was a journeyman television director in his early career, mines his extensive experience in the medium to allow the viewer to eavesdrop on meetings with executives, exploring their motivations and reasoning.
If you mention this film to anyone fortunate enough to have seen it, the first thing that usually springs to mind is Howard’s iconic line: ‘I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore.’ This sentiment struck a chord with audiences at the time and articulated an anger that had set into American society.
Network intelligently explores the changing landscape of television. The real story is focused around the relationship between the middle aged Max Schumacher and the hyperactively ambitious young executive Diana Christensen. Max represents the old guard. He trained with the legendary TV news anchor Ed Morrow and he has invested his work with traditional values and a sense of decency that is absent from Diana’s attitude. Diana is only interested in ratings and success. The two embark upon an affair. Diana is unable to disconnect from her work life and all she ever talks about is her work. Max ends up leaving his wife in what amounts to a mid-life crisis or a response to his ‘male menopause’. He pursues the relationship with Diana as he wants to remain semi-relevant. Diana needs Max as a mirror for her disintegrating conscience. She does not care about the human cost of her ambition; it is simply about good ratings.
Much of Network focuses on the role of corporations. The UBS network is in the midst of a takeover by Saudi Arabians. The future of the Network is placed in jeopardy when Howard criticises the takeover in one of his rants. The scene when Howard is called to meet the head of the holding corporation Mr Jensen (Ned Beatty), is one of the most memorable scenes in a picture littered with outstanding moments. Mr Jansen informs an almost hypnotised Howard that: ‘You have meddled with the primal forces of nature.’ After this meeting one would almost believe his assertion.
Written by Paddy Chayefsky, Network has proven to be his masterpiece. It rightfully won him the Academy award for best original screenplay in 1976. I believe it to be one of the greatest screenplays in the history of film. His script is a dream for actors. Each of Network’s leads have numerous moments to shine. The scenarios are so convincing it feels as if the viewer is eavesdropping; whether focusing on executive meetings, to the incredible rants, to the heart-breaking revelations, this film has it all.
Apart from the Oscar for best original screenplay, Network also won awards for Best actress – Faye Dunaway, Best Supporting Actor Peter Finch (the first ever awarding of a posthumous Oscar as he died shortly after completing principal photography), and Best Supporting Actress for Beatrice Straight. Her performance lasted little more than 5 minutes, yet her incredible cameo is one of the major highlights in a film littered with exceptional performances.
Network lost out in the best picture category of the academy awards to Rocky, back when the Oscars used to mean something. It is easy to see why voters trumped for Rocky: it’s an inspirational and sentimental film that has heart. It offered a hopeful antidote to the morale sapping reality of a superior picture like Network. Sentimentality usually trumps realism, especially when it comes to the Academy Awards.
Curiously, Network is hardly ever shown on Television. Perhaps it cuts too close to the bone.