Network (1976) directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Peter Finch
What’s it about?
Peter Finch plays Howard Beale, a newscaster for TV station UBS who is under severe mental strain from sinking ratings and chronic alcoholism. As a result, he has a breakdown and threatens to blow his own brains out live on air in a week’s time. Panicked network head Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall) orders him to be removed from the studio to allow him time to calm down.
Enter ambitious network programmer Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) a woman so coldly cynical that, upon viewing filmed footage of a bank robbery by a revolutionary cult called the Ecumenical Liberation Army, sees it as a golden opportunity to expand it into a regular show. The 1970s is a time of high unemployment, high oil prices and post-Watergate disillusionment in America, and Diana is seeking an opportunity to tap into the viewpoint of the disenfranchised masses.
Howard’s unhinged ranting seems to fit her purposes like a glove as, in her own words: “American people want something to articulate their rage for them.” She persuades Hackett to keep him on the show. Howard himself, having abandoned all reason, sees his own newfound persona as a way to rejuvenate his flagging ratings. However, his best buddy Max (William Holden) is concerned about him being exploited by this new circus of interest surrounding him. Before he can do much about it, however, Hackett fires Max and replaces him with the more compliant Robert McDonough (Lane Smith).
Finch’s wild behaviour reaches a crescendo when he incites his viewers to shout “I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore” from their own front windows. Diana feels they’ve “hit the motherlode” and grants him a new dedicated show with its own lavish set. However, it becomes increasingly clear that they’ve unleashed a monster who is spiralling beyond their control and exposing a few backstage secrets about American society they would rather be hidden.
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Why is it significant?
Network comes very much from an era of Hollywood movies which we may never see the like of again. The Watergate scandal of 1972 severely damaged the relationship of trust between the American people and the State, and when combined with economic difficulties, disenchantment with how the Vietnam War was going and various other events that occurred during this time managed to imbue a climate of pervasive disillusionment. The media and film industries followed suit, and anti-establishment furore soon became syncretic with the establishment itself. However, rather than the establishment being subverted from within, the furore of the people was turned into another commodity to sell right back to them.
In many ways you could argue that Network was a product of this ironically anti-establishment establishment in itself i.e. it was produced by MGM/UA (a major Hollywood studio) and gained a raft of nominations and wins from that most established of film award ceremonies, the Oscars.
How does it hold up?
Network, being as it has been scripted by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Sidney Lumet, it is smart and self-aware enough to know that it has been produced by the very establishment it is attacking. Its transcendence of any attempt to turn it into pre-packaged anger is quite startling.
It is a film every bit as energised with unbridled rage as its preacher-like quasi-hero Howard Beale. Dialogue stretches are lengthy, loud and laced with barbed satirical wit. Often they fade in and out or overlap each other, in the very same way as the competing news outlets stumble over each other for this big story unfolding before their eyes. However, as opposed to being messy, everything in this film is leanly focussed on building a story of two competing forces - one of disenchanted anger and one of established order - and their eternal attempts to come out on top of each other. Unfortunately, we know all too well that it won’t be the little guy with the loud voice who comes up trumps in the end.
The problem? Television is a manipulated reality, Network argues, and one that makes people lose touch with real feelings and real human contact in favour of a mutually reinforcing feedback loop perpetuated by, and for, the Dianas of this world - who (in Max’s words) have “learned life from Bugs Bunny”.
The film may be focussed heavily on talking (or rather, raging) heads. However, as with his other films, Lumet manages to work in a lot of visual inventiveness. The opening shot shows four different televisions with four different programmes competing for attention. It then zooms in on one featuring newscaster Howard. In an act of ellipsis at the end, the conclusion of Howard’s story is reflected by the camera pulling back from that same television to view the group of four. At the end of the day, his story is but one of many unfurling at the numbed audience. In another scene, a tracking shot follows Hackett as he walks past one staff member after another, each one embroiled in their own telephone call about the unfolding drama.
In yet another inspired moment, as more and more windows upon up on an apartment block for the occupants to proclaim “I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore” the shots widen out to take in the entire wall of the building erupting in unison. We soon see how the group dynamics underpinning what Diana keeps referring to as “popular rage” creates its own group of obedient sheep waiting to tune in next time.
Performances are fantastic across the board, and it’s little wonder several of the cast members here either won or were nominated for Oscars. The finest of all is, of course, Peter Finch (who sadly was awarded it posthumously in 1977); he comes across exactly like a man possessed by some higher power in his own mind. There’s a tinge of the theatrical about him, but in a way that suits the milieu of TV as described as “showbiz” by Diana. Faye Dunaway’s Diana herself is perhaps the finest work by this actress. She seems to be on some eternal personal brainstorm of morally bankrupt but inspired ratings-seeking ideas forever restlessly bubbling to the surface. She was a clear inspiration for Rene Russo’s performance as Nina in the exemplary Nightcrawler (2014). While William Holden’s performance as Max initially seems sidelined by these two grandstanders, he later comes into his own, bringing with him a rich seam of old-fashioned humanity and humility to the ever-expanding circus.
In these modern times, when one crisis after another unfurls on our TV screens and web browsers courtesy of a plethora of outlets looking to make capital out of human suffering, we need films like Network more than ever.
Runtime: 121 mins
Dir: Sidney Lumet
Script: Paddy Chayefsky
Starring: Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Peter Finch, Robert Duvall, Ned Beatty, Wesley Addy, William Prince, Lane Smith, Beatrice Straight