Nearly forty years after its original release Network is just as relevant now, perhaps more so, than it was then. Because within Sidney Lumet’s Oscar winning satire-come-parable of the pitfalls of humanity lies a God’s honest truth; that as people we are fascinated by the darkest depths to which we as a race are willing to stoop.
The sheer brilliance of the film filters through the oil black comedy of it all, that as the characters shout and rant at each other, the public bay for more blood and we the audience are left stunned by the brutal and terrifying reality. Because Network, while then a theory based on a potential reality, is now almost dated in the ideas of the lengths television executives will go to in order to raise their viewing figures.
It starts off with newsman Howard Beale (Peter Finch), just fired for falling viewing figures, announcing live on air that he will kill himself the following evening. It’s done with such a dry delivery that even his producers in the control room aren’t sure if it’s actually been said. His life-long friend and news producer Max (William Holden) rapidly yanks him off the air only for Beale to return the following night issuing and apology and embarking on a rant about society that gets the viewers hooked.
Enter Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway); a ruthless executive who wants nothing more than to bring the viewers in by giving them live acts of mayhem, murder and chaos. Beale rapidly becomes her poster boy, a “latter day prophet” spouting bile and hatred every night live on the air with the whole country watching. Determined to protect Beale Max insists he will not allow him to have his nervous breakdown in front of millions of viewers but Network head Frank (Robert Duvall) has other ideas.
Great movies live long in the memory of cinematic history but Network goes one better; it lasts long in the zeitgeist of modern culture. Because its presence is felt strong even now in television shows, films and commercials. Watch Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom or Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip and you will see echoes of Lumet’s masterpiece. Last year’s Nightcrawler possessed that same society under the microscope through modern media. More recently still a furniture commercial adopted Beale’s slogan “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” complete with his brown overcoat just to cement the homage as clearly as possible. Because Network said things back in 1976 that we’re still screaming from the rooftops now.
The result is a sense of grandeur brought to the film by writer Paddy Chayefsky. The dialogue is often bold and lyrical, the sort of monologues that would make Shakespeare proud. Chayefsky and Lumet weren’t just interested in making a film to tell a story, they wanted to put ideas so big, terrifying and outrageous in your head as to make you swim in the madness of the situation and say; “this is truth, this is actually happening and we sit back and call it entertainment”.
In this world Diana is desperate to put live acts of terrorism on the news. Perhaps a radical idea back in the ‘70s but now a harrowing truth as news outlets around the world broadcast the latest acts of violence in the Middle East on to our televisions while our dinner sits still warm on our laps. In this world you have Beale put on prime time television as a circus freak slowly losing his mind, it’s the kind of thing that Made In Big Brother’s Desperate Housewives of Essex does without batting an eyelid.
The performances are stunning. Holden’s early scenes make you proud, here is a man who knows right from wrong but by the end he’s broken, knowing that he has not been the upstanding citizen he had hoped to be. It’s a bitter pill to swallow and watching Holden try is gut wrenching. Finch, who was nominated and won his Oscar after his death, as “The Mad Prophet Of The Airways” is simply mesmerizing, his wide-eyed ranting breakdown mannerisms cause both fear and sorrow. Duvall is typically stressed as the executive trying to hold it all together, constantly pulling what remains of his hair back he’s both understated and powerful. Ned Beatty in one scene in particular does enough to warrant his Oscar Nomination, towering over Beale, bathed first in light and then in shadow as he whispers that Beale may well have just seen the face of God. Beatty’s presence is so large it’s hard to argue with him.
But the real standout is Oscar winner Faye Dunaway. Her Diana represents everything corrupt and damaged in this world and all done with a cherub, innocent face. At one point Max turns to her and says “You’re television incarnate… War, murder, death are all the same to you as bottles of beer”. Dunaway doesn’t make Diana a monster, her actions are often deplorable and exploitative but she does it all with a genuine enthusiasm that you cannot help but sense is little more than blind naivety.
A movie that at the time told a fiction that has become a soul sapping reality in modern society, Network isn’t just a film, it’s a lesson engrained on the moral consciousness that we’re all too ready to ignore. A bona fide masterpiece.