“Television will never be the same!”
Director: Sidney Lumet
Cast: Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Peter Finch
Synopsis: A television network cynically exploits a deranged former anchor’s ravings and revelations about the news media for its own profit.
I wonder if Paddy Chayefsky ever suspected how prescient his screenplay for Network would prove to be when he wrote it in 1976. Today we’re bombarded with reality TV that both examines, and is aimed at, society’s lowest common denominator, and which guides its audience towards almost pre-determined allegiances with one character/contestant or another with a singular lack of grace or subtlety. There’s a strong suspicion that talent shows like X Factor manipulate voting figures to ensure that contestants whose ‘quirkiness’ boosts the broadcaster’s ratings remain in the competition long after their lack of votes should have seen them dismissed. And Big Brother style shows, in which C-list celebrities desperate for publicity are closeted together for weeks on end in the hope that they will fight or have sex, are cynically edited down to one-hour episodes in which audience allegiances are again manipulated to boost ratings. The freak show has moved from the fairground to the front room. It’s enough to make you feel like throwing open your window and shouting out “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”
The memorable figure in Network is Howard Beale (Peter Finch), the wretched newscaster whose falling figures have finally resulted in his dismissal. It’s news that tips Howard over the edge, and he announces during a live broadcast that he will commit suicide on air the following week. Now that’s a ratings grabber. Howard might be flirting with madness (or, more likely, displaying symptoms of a brain tumour), but he still knows what to do to guarantee an audience. Of course, the TV network for which he works — a fictional rival to the American giants, named UBS — isn’t prepared to allow Beale to kill himself on air, but when TV executive Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) sees how high his ratings sky-rocket after a second on-air outburst that was supposed to be an apology, she sees a way of exploiting Beale’s mental instability to the network’s advantage.
Although Beale’s the one we remember, it’s Diana and fellow executive Max Schumacher (William Holden) who are the main characters. Max is old school, still possessing a moral code that is quickly becoming obsolete thanks to the new breed of executives like Diana. And yet he can’t quite bring himself to reject the life completely and has the kind of fascination with Diana that puts one in mind of a junkie’s fascination with the needle. Max is an old friend of Howard’s, but even Diana’s cynical manipulation of his friend isn’t enough to dissuade him from embarking on a particularly joyless affair which he knows will cost him his 25-year marriage.
Beale gets a fancy new set and a live audience, and is encouraged to hold forth on any topic he wants by Diana and new network boss Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall), a ruthlessly ambitious, mercenary, and uncouth bully who is quick to fire Max when he protests over his and Diana’s treatment of Howard. But a loose cannon will fire in all directions, and things backfire on Hackett and Diana when Beale insists in a live broadcast that the nation protests over the proposed takeover of the network by Saudi Arabians.
Network is an intelligently written piece of work that treads an uneasy line between satire and drama. There’s an unevenness of tone, however, that means the story doesn’t always flow as smoothly as it should, and a misguided sub-plot involving Diana’s negotiations for a TV programme with a terrorist outfit only serve to compound the problem. The acting is first-rate, as suggested by the fact that Finch, Dunaway and Beatrice Straight in a small role as Max’s wife, all won Oscars (Holden, and Ned Beatty as a megalomaniac TV boss were also nominated). Chayefsky also won a gong for his screenplay which, in a strange sort of way, is almost too good; Characters speak with a casual eloquence that escapes real mortals, and their lines sometimes come across as prepared speeches rather than the spontaneous articulation of their thoughts.
Nevertheless, Network provides a chillingly accurate depiction of a ruthless business and the people who choose to work in it. If anything, that business is even more cut-throat today than it was back then, making the film as relevant today as it was back in 1976.
(Reviewed 8th March 2013)