Network (1976): United States – directed by Sidney Lumet
Rated R by the MPAA – contains language, a small amount of sexual content, and brief violence
Network made a bit of a splash upon its initial release, gathering ten Oscar nominations and walking away with four. It did not win Best Picture, but then neither did Taxi Driver or All the President’s Men, because Rocky walked away with the golden statuette.
The movie was applauded for its scathingly harsh attack on the state of television news in the mid 1970’s. Its message is perhaps even more fitting now, in an age when reality TV and semi-real news shows dominate the airwaves. In some ways it is quite chilling how accurate Network really is today.
The film revolves around several executives at the UBS network. Max Schumacher (William Holden) is a seasoned director of the news hour. Howard Beale (Peter Finch, winning the first posthumous Oscar ever awarded) is a long-time newsman, though his life and career have been going rather poorly as of late. Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) is a young, ambitious programming director, while Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall in one of his rare bad-guy roles) is president of the corporation that recently purchased UBS.
Things start out with a bang, as Howard, just learning he is about to be fired, announces on live TV that he will commit suicide on air the following week. At first there is a general sense of outrage, both at the network and with the audience. However, once Diana sees the overnight ratings for the show she starts getting excited. With the help of Hackett, and a romantic relationship with Max, Diana realizes her dream of making the Howard Beale show the number one show on television.
I’m afraid this is a shameful oversimplification of the plot, but with so many dynamic characters and a plot filled with corporate entanglements and power struggles, it’s the best I can do with so little space. The funny thing is, it’s not the corporate dealings, or even the romantic subplot between Diana and Max, that is the star of the show.
The movie is intended to be a bitter critique on how television networks are run, and it succeeds admirably. On a broader scale it’s a critique of television in general, and how destructive it is to humanity. It succeeds here as well. The outrageous lengths Diana undergoes to secure a high-rated show are preposterous, but we know it’s happening every day. She goes to a leader of the Communist Party to obtain video that some terrorists have filmed of themselves robbing a bank; sensationalism at its finest. How much of a stretch would it be to see that done today?
There are several notable elements of Network. The way it deals with television is one of them, and the fact that the film was made while being so critical of the world’s corporate culture is perhaps a minor miracle. It’s interesting, too, just how unique a character Diana is. She’s so extraordinarily ambitious that all she wants is to get ahead in her work, doing whatever it takes to secure those rating points. She even compares herself to men, sexually, and indeed she hardly seems like any other female I’ve seen in a movie. She’s the ultimate career woman.
The first half of the movie jumps along as the characters and situations are set up. The second half, though, stalls, as the romantic angle becomes more central to the plot and the characters have nothing more to do than perform impassioned monologues. These speeches are impressive, and the acting is superb (Network won three acting Oscars, something only one film before it had accomplished), but the continued speeches left me a bit restless. Fortunately, the movie ends exactly how it has to end; there is only one logical conclusion for the network executives to reach once they have started on their path.
Outside of a slow second hour, the production is spotless, from some fascinating camera angles to the overlapping dialogue. The words themselves are intelligent; I doubt a modern film could use this many heady words and get away with it. No one could have asked for a more experienced cast, and their talent shines through. The film does get a bit long, particularly in the second half, and I wonder if it could have been tighter without maybe 15 minutes of those speeches.
Network is a classic film. It’s about big ideas and important truths about our society and culture. At times the points it makes are a bit heavy handed, and at times a bit long-winded. I liked the vast majority of the film, but as the end drew nearer I became worried. Fortunately, the final five minutes made me very happy; if anything else had happened it would have ruined the entire film.