(1976, Sidney Lumet)
“I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take this anymore!”
Network appears to be a film with some degree of minor cult success. You don’t usually hear about it listed in typical Best Films Ever lists, but it does turn up once or twice on some individuals’ lists. It’s a movie that I have been quite intrigued by, so today I’ll be taking a look at it.
Network is the story of the UBS Evening News, and its anchor, Howard Beale (Peter Finch). After poor ratings, Beale is informed that he is to be taken off the air, which leads him to announce his suicide on-air. His boss, Max Schumacher (William Holden), urges the network to give him a second chance…and Beale immediately goes on air to denounce everything as “bullshit”. However, far from causing an upset, his rant becomes a ratings hit, and the corporate interests at the network take note. This includes programming director Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway), who seeks out anything that can get the network the best ratings, regardless of any moral concerns.
So, the movie states in its opening crawl that this is Howard Beale’s story, but as the film steadily progresses, it’s pretty obvious that it isn’t. This is a movie about corporate broadcast media and how corrupt and twisted it can be. It’s a movie about the effects television can have on the populace just as much as the pressures of a high-profile news anchor.
And this, honestly, makes the movie better than I expected. I mean, I expected to enjoy it due to the subject matter anyway, but I found that because it wasn’t so heavily focused on Beale himself (like I assumed) it was free to explore the TV business from even more angles than simply news anchors.
And there is some juicy social commentary here. I sat there for the whole thing trying to determine the movie’s intentions. I wasn’t sure whether to expect a revolution from the population off the back of Beale’s speeches or the total manipulation of the public through their anger. I’m not gonna say which happened, but the constant questioning of who’s going to come out better in all of this made this a very interesting watch.
You also had some excellent performances carrying this along. Finch is brilliant at representing a man whose sanity is slowly slipping after he’s been manipulated and strung along for so long, and the pressures of fame, as either a news anchor or a “modern-day prophet” have taken their toll on him. And then you have Dunaway, who is delightfully crazy but surprisingly nuanced, leading to the question about whether her actions are the result of a subtle form of media manipulation too.
There’s also a lot of post-modernism here too, with Schumacher openly discussing the narrative of their lives, and how Christensen is supposedly determined to play her life out like a TV show, with all the expected twists and turns. Of course, you’re watching a movie, which is just as scripted as Christensen supposedly expects her life to be.
You could probably sit and examine this movie from a million angles and still not be done with it. It’s a scathing attack on the media industry but also seems to openly question those who form their opinions by what they’ve seen on TV. And of course, its very existence as a piece of media causes us to focus that lens back on ourselves, but also makes us question even doing that because we’re doing exactly what the movie is criticising us for doing.
Network isn’t perfect, mind. It’s got some problems with pacing, and sometimes its attempts to shove as many ideas and criticisms of the media into two hours can make it feel unfocused. I personally would have liked to see a greater build-up to Beale’s steady breakdown, and possibly less focus on the terrorist group that Christensen was so determined to hand their own TV show. It can also feel a little bit cluttered at times as it hops between the various characters and plotlines with very little flow.
But that said, I enjoyed Network for its spot-on satire of the media industry and the influences it can have on its audiences. It’s post-modern, it’s slightly scary and it’s a fine film overall.
Starring Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Peter Finch & Robert Duvall
Written by Paddy Chayefsky
Produced by Howard Gottfried & Fred C. Caruso
Music by Elliot Lawrence
Cinematography by Owen Roizman
Edited by Alan Heim
Favourite Scene: Hard to deny the power of Beale’s “mad as hell” speech
Scene That Bugged Me: The terrorist subplot generally could have done with a little more work
Watch it if: You like scathing commentary on the media
Avoid it if: You’re confusing it with Anchorman