Network tells the story of a television network who exploit the ravings of their news anchor, Howard Beale (Peter Finch, who won an Oscar he deserved for the role), placing an increasingly unstable man in the spotlight until the situation becomes untenable. A dark look at the imagined future of the media, where primetime slots turn into modern-day stockades for people to lob their fruit, and the presenting of national news becomes instead a platform for mid-20th Century self-styled Cassandras.
The biggest slap-on-the-back for writer Paddy Chayefsky and director Sidney Lumet stems from the fact that the plot of Network, satire though it may be, has become eerily prescient when looked back upon with 20/20 hindsight. The Western world’s idiots have come out of the woodwork to be used and abused for the amusement of all, and television studios become ever more cynical and exploitative of shocking news stories in order to bump up their ratings. Were Howard Beale alive today, he’d be mad as whatever is beyond hell.
Faye Dunaway gives a progressive performance as the ambitious VP of Programming, who intends to take Howard Beale’s inherent entertainment factor of what-will-he-do-next and fold the fact-based News Division into her more flexible Programming department. As Diana Christensen, she gives just enough vulnerability within the context of her burgeoning affair with William Holden’s Max Shumacher to not be completely despicable – although this does not excuse some of her character’s actions later in the game, of course – it goes part of the way to making her character slightly sympathetic.
Perhaps one of the first portrayals of a powerful woman working in a man’s world, she is hungry for success and understands the rules of the game enough to know that stepping over people to get where you want to be is part and parcel of the world she inhabits. Bar those despicable actions that she finds herself deciding to carry out, one can’t help but appreciate the fact that a character such as this, to be created in the 70s, shows a fantastically progressive angle; it doesn’t matter if Christensen is man or woman. She’s simply a power player in a daunting game.
The film is horrifying in its portrayal of American corporate-driven television honchos actively seeking out domestic terror organisations and offering to create one-hour slots around them and their “exploits”. A particularly chilling scene finds said radicals sitting down with suited, four-pointed types and going over the details of their contract; one heated debate leads to a gun going off to quieten the room. The implications in 2015 are clear; what if it was ISIS being courted for a weekly news segment? Rather than being farther from this ridiculous portion of satire forty years later, God forbid, we may actually be closer.
Network escalates and escalates with its negative portrayal of the men in charge of the media we rely on, starting with a question of “these people? Really? How close to reality is this?” until culminating in the intended question the film should have – “I really hope the reality is far from this”. As a text it should be used as a mirror to today’s world and the hope that we can learn something from it, if it’s not too late. If the cast and crew didn’t know how important and prescient their participation in this film was, it simply doesn’t show in their work.
A great doc on Sidney Lumet from ‘99, supported by informative interviews with the likes of Jack Lemmon, gives rounded insight into the man behind the lens of Network and will assist in adding layers to your understanding of the film itself. A visual essay titled Tune in Next Tuesday by Dave Itzkoff, the author of Mad as Hell: The Making of Network, further adds to those layers – skip at your peril. The crisp Collector’s booklet should also be removed from the case ASAP and put into whatever bag you take with you to work – great reading for a commute. Once you throw in the original trailer for shits and giggles you’re left with a very academic selection of features that endow the purchase with more worth than its pricetag.
Review by Daniel Woburn
[SRA value=”5″ type=”YN”]
Network is available on Blu-Ray now.