I decided to watch Network after falling in love with Aaron Sorkin‘s latest television endevour, The Newsroom. In reading the reviews that came out after the premier of Sorkin’s show the thing everyone kept mentioning was how this held up against Network so I figured “when in Rome.” Network is a product of its time (and oddly enough still a product of our time) but there’s something about this film that just seemed dated. Maybe it was the almost absurd nature of the plot, and the twist that arrives at the very end. I understood what Network was trying to say, and I understood why it’s such an influential film, but I wouldn’t necessarily watch it again. It’s one of those films that I can say is a must-see…but it’s certainly not one I liked (does this make any sense). Let’s look at the story and analyze a bit.
News anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch) is recently let go after several years of service to the UBS Evening News because of declining ratings. During his final broadcast he announces his suicide which furthers his removal and yet the ratings go up! Thinking they can exploit this, the group of executives behind the scenes decide to keep Beale on and let him rant and rave. He soon amasses a devout group of followers and ratings are through the roof. As the network decides how to further this network programming head Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) sees Beale as a gateway to get her own show about terrorists on the air.
While I mentioned there’s something that feels dated about Network at the same time there’s a timeless quality to the film. No doubt this film is shown in media studies classes as the story is reflective of the increasingly low standards of the entertainment industry. If anything the ideas espoused in Network are tame in comparison to what’s on now. Sure Howard Beale talks of suicide and revolution with his chant “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore,” is disturbing but I find the glorification of teenage pregnancy frightening. Oddly enough the recent film God Bless America could be a sequel to Network with its depictions of a world based around television.
The main through-line of the film is what’s the limit on exploitation and what type of power can be behind that? Beale is obviously undergoing some type of mental breakdown yet because his rants are popular, the network gets behind him even though they were prepping to fire him a few days ago. It’s almost laughable how a farewell f-you to his employers actually ends up sustaining his job. As the film progresses not only is Beale’s instability exploited but the idea of social revolution through terrorism is seen as must-see TV in the parallel story headed by Faye Dunaway’s Diana. If anything this is the scene that could never pass today, although some could argue that it’s still fear-mongering of a different type. The group Diana follows, the Ecumenical Liberation Group (Ecumenical meaning general or all-inclusive…odd for a terrorist group), itself a take on the 70s Symbionese Liberation Army, is meant to turn in footage of kidnappings, bank robberies, assassinations, and other forms of “social revolution.” Again, this could never be done on television today but considering the different news organization that focus on fear to gain ratings, they are parallel tracks.
Network came out during an interesting decade of political unrest and strife. While 1976 was a celebratory year due to the Bicentennial there was also the Son of Sam murders and the Chowchilla Bus kidnapping, two events that pushed people into a state of fear for their lives and their children due to their unpredictability and seemingly random causes. Also, 1976 was the first year without a war as Vietnam finally closed the year before. As Diana Christensen says “The American people want someone to articulate their rage for them” and it’s true. People were finally coming to grips that the country has been lied to about a war that cost lives, and the amount of senseless violence that was going on only enhanced their rage. When Howard Beale finally gets his own show the set and Beale look like a preacher in a pulpit. The fans of his show latch on to him as a man with all the answers, who’s sick of political correctness and just wants to be angry. Network says that television has become the new religion, a substitute of sorts fighting for the hearts and minds of the American public. The higher the ratings, the more “converts.” Not only is Beale angry and unbalanced you feel sad that everyone has an agenda for keeping him on the air, except poor Max Schumacher (William Holden), Beale’s friend and former network president. Once Beale finds some restraint and his ratings go down, everyone including Diana, reverts back to calling Beale a lunatic and finding ways to get rid of him. Everyone loves you until you stop making money for them.
The acting in this is astonishing throughout. Peter Finch is the one usually highlighted in this film with his “Mad as hell” refrain becoming the legendary line of the entire movie. While he was good, he wasn’t my favorite. Faye Dunaway blew me away by far as Diana. She mentions to Max that men don’t like her because she’s masculine herself and boy is she. I’d go so far as to say she’s a robot as opposed to anything human. She lacks basic human emotions to the point of being a hollow shell. When Max asks Diana to simply love him you can see Diana express emotion…to tell him “I don’t know how to do that.” To me, she loves Max in a way but she’s been so conditioned to be strong and masculine to keep up with the boys club of television she’s dead inside. The only emotion she can muster is to express she has none and that makes her the saddest human being in the world. Network is probably Dunaway’s best role!
I will admit I originally wanted to watch this for Mr. William Holden who plays Max Schumacher. Various other bloggers, particularly Patti at the delightful They Don’t Make ‘Em Like They Used To, has mentioned that time wasn’t kind to Holden. In this film gone is the gorgeous man of yesteryear and I’m sorry but it’s far too awkward for me to hear Bill Holden drop F-bombs and have sex with Faye Dunaway. That’s neither here nor there. The film does use Holden to great effect, and having him alongside rising stars like Dunaway and Robert Duvall is almost like a passing of the guard. With the new rise of television how about a movie that includes past stars of yesteryear? Max desperately wants to find help for Howard but he’s pushed away at every turn and constantly told he’s out of touch (again fading film star told he’s out of touch…poignant). Max’s relationship with Diana is a classic way for him to find youth and relevance, sadly he’s found it with the wrong woman.
There’s a theatrical quality to Network that I haven’t seen in films from this decade. The writing by the acclaimed Paddy Chayefsky, is equally theatrical and grandiose. When corporate head Arthur Jensen (Ned Beatty) gives a speech to Howard about what to say during his show it takes on a fire and brimstone quality with the darkness enveloping the characters, their faces the only visible thing. The table separating the two of them is incredibly long giving it a surreal quality. Howard’s sets take on an equally surreal, garish quality to them reminiscent of 1970s television game shows mixed with Sid and Marty Kroft. Here’s Arthur’s speech:
I was probably a taste harsh in my opening to Network. It’s an important film, a legendary example of 1970s cinema, it’s jut not a movie you can pop out and watch during an afternoon of light film watching. It’s filled with rapid-fire dialogue and character arcs that require the utmost attention. Network is a film you really have to be in the right mindset to watch. If you’re not interested in watching a serious film, as I wasn’t when I popped this in, it’s easy to zone out. I’d probably rewatch this in a few years so that’s something. Regardless, it’s a film to cross off your bucket list.
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.