Directed by: Sidney Lumet
Premise: When a network news anchor (Peter Finch) has an on-air meltdown, an unscrupulous network programmer (Faye Dunaway) takes over the news division and turns the nightly broadcast into a circus.
What Works: There are a handful of movies, whether by accident or by genius, that gave audiences a glimpse of the future years or even decades before their visions would come to fruition. 1927’s Metropolis foresaw many contemporary technological innovations and 1998’s Enemy of the State anticipated the surveillance state. Among the most prophetic motion pictures to come out of Hollywood is 1976’s Network. This movie anticipated several developments in contemporary media, namely the transformation of television news and the rise of reality television. But what makes Network a great movie isn’t simply the fact that it foresaw new advents in style and format. The movie was in touch with something far more fundamental in American culture and forty years after its release Network’s vision has proven frighteningly accurate. Network is generally understood as an attack on television and on mass media. It certainly is that; the film is an indictment of the way that television can be exploitative, warp well-meaning intentions, and become a propaganda force. However, Network doesn’t stop there. In the 1970s there was a change afoot in the communications industry. Media companies like television networks and Hollywood studios were being absorbed into larger corporate conglomerates. News divisions, which had been understood to exist as a public service, were now expected to generate revenue. Screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky, who had a background in television, saw this happening to the industry and out of that came the story of Network. But Chayefsky’s critique didn’t stop at the corruption of the newsroom. He saw, correctly, that all of culture was being reshaped in the image of corporations and that their consolidation of power would fundamentally change the character of our communities and way we thought about the world, the nation, and ourselves. But Network also criticizes the audience. In the film’s last bit of prescience, it dramatized the way anger could become a spectator sport; Howard Beale’s classic line “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” becomes a parody of itself within the story of Network but also in the real world where it’s been used as a punchline and an advertising slogan. This incisive look at media, business, and culture would itself make Network an extraordinary film but the picture adds another element—a strange juxtaposition of righteous anger with intimate moments of human frailty. That’s conveyed most effectively by William Holden, in one of his best performances, as an aged news director who is also the film’s conscience. Faye Dunaway’s ambitious network executive is mostly coarse but there’s an emptiness about her that makes the character, as Holden puts it, “television incarnate.” And Peter Finch’s performance as news anchor Howard Beale has as many moments of bluster as he does of bewilderment as the world shifts around him. That unexpected combination of satirical edge and compassionate humanity has the effect of lowering the viewer’s defenses. Where most sardonic movies keep the characters at arm’s length in order to ridicule them, Network brings them in for a close up and finds their vulnerability. That combination is what makes Network so powerful. The movie is a portrayal of institutional corruption and it has a wicked laugh at how craven this network becomes under corporate control. But that corruption is human as well as institutional and when the events of the film turn to tragedy Network accomplishes something really unique: it fulfills its satirical mission while also being dramatically satisfying.
What Doesn’t: Network is very much a product of 1976; the film is full of references to current events and pop cultural articles from that time. The audience of 1976 would have understood these references immediately and a few of them remain poignant but allusions to figures like Patty Hearst and Angela Davis and even Mary Tyler Moore may be lost on today’s viewers. However, Network doesn’t rely on those details and so they don’t sink the film the way they might a parody movie. Network is a polemical work. If not a satire it is at least satirical and the movie is the visualization of the anxieties and annoyances of writer Paddy Chayefsky. As such, Network has numerous monologues in which the characters rage at television, business, and culture. This would be unbearable if it weren’t for the wit and intelligence of the script and the excellence of the performances. The movie is, in a dark Dr. Strangelove way, very funny and that sense of humor makes the movie engaging even as it is overbearing. But it is fair to criticize Network for being shrill.
DVD extras: The blu-ray edition includes a commentary track, a documentary, interviews, and a trailer.
Bottom Line: Forty years after its initial release, Network is as poignant as ever. The movie is startling in how accurately it predicated the trajectory of mass media and American culture but it is more than a cinematic artifact from the 1970s. The movie presents us with a tale of intuitional and individual corruption that remains unsettling.
Episode: #37 (January 30, 2005); Revised #590 (April 10, 2016)