In my collection of favourite movies is something I can guarantee my target audience hasn’t seen. (For example, people who are over 18 years of age and don’t know who Rob Zombie is.) It’s a satire of television from 34 years ago called Network, directed by Sidney Lumet and written by Paddy Cheyefsky. It features some of cinema’s finest performances from Peter Finch, William Holden and Faye Dunaway. It comes from a time when dialogue could be traded monologues instead of stilted and interrupted half-baked thoughts. It also comes from a time before reality television. How can a movie so accurately portray a society that hadn’t come to exist yet? Maybe the society always existed and we just didn’t televise it.
Howard Beale (Peter Finch) is a network news anchor for fictional network UBS. This story is about him, in the sense that it takes place around him and focuses on him, but keeps him distant from the audience. You witness his journey, like watching the collapse of a man’s life through insert stories in the news. Max Schumacher (William Holden) is his old and faithful friend, in charge of the news division at UBS. He tells Howard one night, as the movie opens, that he is to be fired and off the air in two weeks. Howard, having lost his wife and now his show, threatens to kill himself on air. Max doesn’t take him seriously until he makes the same threat, live on the air, the next night. Thus starts the main thrust of this movie: the emotional and mental breakdown of a man named Howard Beale.
At the network, but in the entertainment division, is a cutthroat showrunner named Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway). A woman with no dedications except to ratings success at any cost, she sees a goldmine in Howard. A man threatening to commit suicide, a newscaster saying that the world is bullshit on the air, she sees not the collapse of news dignity, but dollar signs. The rest of the network around her struggles to keep Beale off the air. True to life, no one checks him into a mental hospital or finds someone to help him. Diana instead finds an ally in Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall), a greedy corporate suit who fakes dignity, but is really the same as Diana deep down. He just has the power to approve her changes to his show. They’re discussing changing the format of the nightly news to one that focuses on the private lives of celebrities. Sacrilege, ain’t it?
Network is notable in my eye for being a movie that tries to do too many things. Television is a multi-faceted gigantic thing. Television, at this point in time, was news, programs, movies, everything. This movie tries to touch on all of those subjects. If your only flaw in making a movie is that you do too much with what you’re given, is that really a flaw? The movie works up to a fever pitch, climaxes in Beale walking into the studio out of the rain in his pajamas and implores all of America to yell with him that they’re as mad as hell and they’re not gonna take this anymore. This is less than halfway through the movie.
Everyone knows mad as hell without ever having seen Network. At least, I should hope everyone does. It’s one of the great monologues on film. The surprise that it comes before the true downward spiral of how bad things can get in this movie is only a harbinger of how truly bad these things will get. Wonder Showzen likes to pretend that it presents a black pit of despair and nihilism within its episodes. It does not approach the sheer terror of watching a man break down while his oldest friend can only stand by and be deposed as head of news and ratings keep climbing. This movie was made in the time of the cathode ray tube television. Television was indeed built on a hollow box.
Network doesn’t trade in grit or authenticity. Characters launch into soliloquy without warning. Sidney Lumet knew that there is truth to be found in pseudo-Shakespearean drama, as long as you help the actors to find their performances and characters. Paddy Cheyefsky knew that there is as much truth in speech as there is in silence, as long as you write the speech honestly. Running against my instinct, this collection of monologues masquerading as a satire of television, pretending to be a film, feels more real and affecting than any stilted David Mamet play could possibly play it. These aren’t stupid people. Even the communists being exploited by the network, said to be dumb terrorists too focused on force to make a real political difference, are shown discussing contracts with their lawyers. The movie is as smart as its characters, but like all geniuses, chooses to focus almost entirely on the negative consequences of its actions.
This movie consists entirely of performances. Five roles were nominated for Oscars. In the category of leading man, it lost its own Oscar to itself when Peter Finch beat William Holden. Peter Finch delivers one of the best performances in all of cinema as Howard Beale. He’s created a character that is a permanent fixture of television culture. He speaks truth, solely because his mind is being suffused with madness. William Holden also delivers a nuanced and spectacular performance as his long-suffering friend, trying to find his purpose in his autumn years. Faye Dunaway is Satan, the face of evil behind the airwaves, checking affiliate airings when Howard goes off the rails, re-purposing the news into a tabloid program. Robert Duvall wasn’t nominated, but gets a few choice scenes as a corporate hatchet man, sent to make money for UBS’s corporate overlords. Both of this movie’s nominations for Best Supporting Actor, one male one female, were what are called one scene wonders today. They get a line and then thirty minutes later a monologue. The words are so powerful that five minutes affect you as much as a performance across an entire film.
Satire is a strange beast. Viewed with a dispassionate eye, it doesn’t merely resemble parody. It is parody. This movie presents the impossible in a deadpan. The only reason it isn’t funny is because we know it’s all true. This movie frightens me more than any gorefest you can find. Indeed, it is the most frightening film ever made in America. FOUR STARS