Director: Sidney Lumet Starring: Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Peter Finch, Robert Duvall
Television. What an invention. The ability to transmit images over vast distances, the opportunity to experience events, cultures and places beyond the everyday reach of the viewer. A source of knowledge, information and entertainment. It’s a good thing right? Right? Not everybody would agree with that sentiment. There are those who see television as the beginning of the end, an anaesthetic for the masses, a tool for propaganda and control. With Network, a disturbingly prescient rant about the evils of television, Sidney Lumet and writer Paddy Chayefsky clearly fall into the latter category.
When Howard Beale (Finch), news anchor on a nationally syndicated TV network, suffers a serious drop in ratings he gets fired and so, with nothing left to lose, sensationally declares his intention to kill himself live on TV the following week. When the resultant publicity causes his ratings to skyrocket cynical executive Frank Hackett (Duvall) and an ambitious rising star in programming Diana Christiensen (Dunaway) exploit Beale’s decline of rationality in order to drum up more viewers for their network, much to the disgust of Beale’s long time friend and colleague Max Schumacher (Holden). Hackett and Christiensen end up with a runaway success on their hands but aren’t prepared for the consequences of their actions.
Chayefsky’s script is a thing of eloquent beauty. Insightful, witty and clearly well researched it serves to predict the rise of a fourth national TV network in America dedicated to a less conventional, counter culture kind of programming (enter Fox about ten years later) and the development of ‘reality tv’ as a genre. Both Chayefsky and Lumet don’t regard Network as a satire of it’s subject but a reflection of the direction the industry was headed at the time and this line of argument has been borne out in the thirty five years since the film was made. The parallels between Ned Beatty’s demented network chief Arthur Jensen and real life media tycoon Rupert Murdoch don’t bear thinking about, nor does broadcasting’s incessant desire to chase the lowest common denominator when it comes to maximising ratings and therefore revenues. It makes me long for a return to an era where dialogue consisted of actual vocabulary. It’s the kind of writing Aaron Sorkin seems to be single handedly struggling to keep alive.
Of course it takes a decent cast not to ruin a good script and the assembled talent here is simply amazing. Peter Finch’s angry profit ranting is extraordinary. His “mad as hell” sermon is an iconic moment in cinema as he lets loose all the suppressed, unchanelled anger he feels over the state of the nation. Sitting here, watching the film during the worst global recession in decades, in the wake of the London riots and with nothing but reality talent(less) shows on the telly it has as much resonance as it had in ’76. It takes a performer of Holden’s experience and maturity to suitably convey Schumacher’s growing despair at the decline of standards in the industry he has worked in for decades and the degradation and exploitation of his close friend Howard Beale. Duvall is on simply amazing form as the morally bankrupt, ruthless and frankly villainous Hackett but the most memorable moment of the whole film for me belongs to Ned Beatty who steals the show in a tiny role, a minute or so of screen time that earned him a best supporting actor nomination as the evangelical, money mad Arthur Jensen.
It’s not a hopeful film. A stark warning about the dangers of lowest common denominator entertainment it’s a warning that has gone unheeded as a quick glance at the Saturday night TV schedules will confirm. More people tune in to see ritual humiliation live and in colour now than ever before. Chayefsky’s fears of TV becoming a tool of mega-corporations and shadowy millionaire business men with political ambitions have also come to pass as the recent developments with Rupert Murdoch’s media empire demonstrate. We’re an odd bunch us humans. We can predict our future and then promptly run blindly into the dangers we predict. In our modern era of mass communication and reliance on the media Network is essential viewing.