Vitriol pours out in a torrent engulfing disgruntled news presenter Howard Beale. Soon it spreads to friends and colleagues and the viewing public before completely submerging Sidney Lumet’s film in cynicism and rage. Network is an angry and oh so prescient viewing experience that remains as spot on about the media now as it was on release in 1976.
Satire is a tricky business, hard enough to get right in the moment and almost a Herculean task to ensure it remains relevant in years to come. Paddy Chayefsky’s screenplay achieves the near impossible as Howard snaps live on air, delivering a bitter rant that captures the zeitgeist of an uncertain nation. Howard, played with unhinged fury by Peter Finch in his last film role, acts spontaneously and with passion. But Network isn’t about Howard. It’s about the industry around him that co-opts this outpouring to deliver a ratings hit.
Soon the tool of suits and sensationalists, the only thing that matters is bumping up market share and raising the price of advertising spots. As jaded producer Max Schumacher (William Holden) remarks to rabidly ambitious Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway), television is indifferent to suffering and insensitive to joy. Everything serves the ratings God and everyone is indispensable until they’re not, as both Max and Howard discover in the end.
Weaved into Howard’s fiery sermons come a number of barbed attacks and spiky comments that ambitiously try to encapsulate the sweep of public sentiment in a decade where America began to doubt itself. Post-Watergate and Vietnam, with a faltering economy and Middle East oil shocks, the leader of the free world suddenly seemed vulnerable.
Finch may get the grandstanding moments, but Chayefsky’s script excels at the big and small. Dunaway’s Oscar winning performance – one of four alongside Finch, Chayefsky and Beatrice Straight as Max’s jilted wife – features a memorable scene in which she literally orgasms while talking up ratings success. There’s also a look common across several characters, one that sees faces light up with childlike glee when someone tell them viewing figures are up.
Worthy of the praise gathered over the years, Network is not a smooth, easy ride, and it sometimes over reaches. There’s a tendency to lapse into stretched soliloquys that practically ooze righteousness, while Chayefsky’s gaze roams too far and wide, attempting to capture all the ills of the world’s most powerful nation. It comes unstuck, particularly with a terrorist organisation Diana is set on glorifying that feels more caricature than real. This lack of polish only adds to the film’s impact though. Lesser satire comes across slick, sanitised and glib. Network remains angry and direct, frayed around the edges and in danger of shouting itself hoarse.
It never loses its voice, right down to the sudden ending delivered with malicious joy. Nearly four decades on, Chayefsky and Lumet’s critique of the television industry is as accurate as it was on first release. Many of those involved may no longer be with us, but Network remains as mad as hell and its sure not going to start taking it now.
The Network Blu-ray release also includes a documentary on Sidney Lumet, a visual essay and the theatrical trailer.
The Blu-ray version is released on 23rd March 2015.
Director: Sidney Lumet
Stars: Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Peter Finch, Robert Duvall
Runtime: 121 minutes