The clothes may date the film, but thematically Network is just as relevant today as when it came out in 1976. In fact, its original release now seems like a premonition for the way in which television has come to play such a central role in the Western world.
As the narrator tells us at the beginning, this is a story about Howard Beale (Peter Finch), a TV news anchorman who’s fired because of dwindling viewers. Beale is knocked off-kilter by this, and announces that he will kill himself live on the air. The ratings promptly go sky-high. Enter Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway), an ambitious young producer who wants control of the news division currently run by Max Schumacher (William Holden). In Beale, she sees the ‘mad prophet of the airwaves’ – both a ratings grabber and a career-making opportunity – and in Max, she sees a chance for an affair.
The way the Howard Beale show becomes a success, the way that UBS is at the mercy of its sponsors and stockholders, the way the powers-that-be might turn to extreme measures, make Network more than mere media satire. It shouts with a voice louder and angrier than the cinema is usually accustomed to presenting. Even in the Hollywood of the seventies, when so many terrific movies were made, this was one of the standouts. Today, though, its achievement, in getting this message released by a major studio and played by such a prestigious cast, would be tantamount to getting hardcore porn past the Hays Code.
A large part of Network’s strength comes from the way it tells a weighty, multi-character story so clearly and entertainingly. The clue is in the opening credits: Network is not ‘written by Paddy Chayefsky’ (even though it is his original screenplay), it is simply ‘by Paddy Chayefsky’. This is one of the few films which claims authorship for its writer over its director – even though it’s possibly Sidney Lumet’s finest film. Chayefsky was a major screenwriter, and won his third Best Screenplay Oscar with this film. Of course, Lumet’s attachment would have helped. Having had successes with two exciting Al Pacino vehicles, Serpico (1973) and Dog Day Afternoon (1975), and in between, the handsome ensemble production Murder on the Orient Express (1974), he was clearly in a position to bring a valuable mixture of formal poise and explosive drama to Chayefsky’s work.
With great scenes for so many of the characters, it must have been a dream to win a part in this film. Consider Beatrice Straight’s brief appearance as Louise Schumacher, Max’s abandoned wife – her one big scene expresses her rage and pain so powerfully, it won her an Oscar. Or how about Ned Beatty’s cameo as Arthur Jensen, the all-powerful chairman of the network’s parent company: his rant at Beale for having ‘meddled with the primal forces of nature’ is a brilliant speech, beautifully realised by Beatty, Lumet and director of photography Owen Roizman. Roizman was central to the gritty poetry of so many major films of the period – he also shot, among others, The French Connection (1971) and The Exorcist (1973).
Holden’s part as Max Schumacher is the moral centre of the film. He and Diana play out their affair in the context of a bad TV script, but he soon discovers that she really does have feelings only for TV, for ratings, and it confirms for him that he’s not a part of that mindset. ‘This is not a script, Diana,’ he says at one point. ‘There’s some real, actual life going on here.’
Howard Beale’s on-air outbursts, meanwhile, have entered film folklore. This was Peter Finch’s last performance before his death from a heart attack. It’s hard to see how he could have topped it: this is a film which is brimming over with foreboding and finality. For a modern-day equivalent, we might have to turn to Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen/The Celebration (1998), which also portrayed a character speaking out, saying what must be said no matter the cost, and upsetting the apple cart of the elite in the process. And, of course, Michael Elliott’s The Year of the Sex Olympics (1968) presents a similar view of television’s influence.
MGM’s DVD of Network contains the film in widescreen, enhanced for 16:9 TVs, and an original theatrical trailer. It would have been great if MGM had given it the ‘special edition’ treatment alongside the likes of Fargo (1996), The Terminator(1984) and The Usual Suspects (1995); an audio commentary by Sidney Lumet, for example, would have been something to cherish. No matter – Network is still a great purchase. It’s fired me up and made me want to put the world to rights – if I can only tear myself away from Big Brother 4…