Director: Sidney Lumet
Starring: William Holden and Faye Dunaway
As I mentioned in my post on Rocky, 1976 was possibly the greatest year in the history of film, and whether Network was the best movie released that year, it certainly made some of the most lasting contributions to the medium. Anchored by no less than five terrific performances – three of which took home Oscars – Network is Paddy Chayefsky's semi-dystopian vision of a world constantly tuned into the television, beholden to its stars' commands yet utterly detached from what's happening, onscreen and off. Peter Finch stars in his last film released before his 1977 death as Howard Beale, a TV news anchor who has been fired by his network and has taken to using his last broadcasts as a vehicle for his outspoken ideas about the world. In an extremely famous scene (and one of my three or four favorites of all time) he implores America to go to their windows, stick their heads outside and scream "I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore!" When an ambitious, cynical programming executive played by Faye Dunaway realizes that Beale's broadcast increased ratings by unbelievable margins, she misappropriates his message of action in the face of certain doom as a catchphrase for a new show. Soon a studio audience yells in unison that they're as mad as hell and they aren't going to take this anymore, and The Howard Beale Show is born. And that's just the central plot. The rest are just as damning of the television industry's ratings game, and while the film is ostensibly about a news department at a TV network, almost no actual news is reported in its two hour duration. It's as if they knew all about the age of CNN, MSNBC and Fox News that was to come.
Network offers a rather exaggerated version of the news world that we live in today, but it's still chilling. In a less direct fashion than David Straithairn's speech as Edward R. Murrow that bookends George Clooney's fabulous Good Night, and Good Luck, the entirety of Network serves as a reminder that the way TV has been used pretty much nonstop since its inception is not at all the way it was envisioned by its founders. The endless ratings war, the reality show about the terrorist group, and The Howard Beale Show itself all foreshadow things we can see in network television in 2010. In this sense, we're not so different from the sheep sitting in Beale's audience, blindly screaming out our windows and writing to our Congressmen because someone on the television told us to. The writing was on the wall in 1976, but television has continued to be used less often for the good envisioned by men like Murrow and Fred Friendly and more as a vessel for crass commercialism and the plug-in-tune-out mentality. I'm not even saying this to point the finger at other people so I can sit in my ivory tower without cable – I watch TV, too, and I watch some of the dumbest crap it has to offer. Network wasn't necessarily Chayefsky and director Sidney Lumet's crusade against television in general. It specifically targeted the ability to use TV as a means for social change and warned against networks becoming too obsessed with ratings for fear of literally producing a death toll for entertainment's sake. Since Deadliest Catch and Ice Road Truckers exist, I'm not sure we've learned our lesson.
Beyond all the social commentary, Network is quite simply one of the greatest movies ever made, with one of the greatest casts ever assembled. Peter Finch shines as the "mad prophet" Howard Beale, William Holden gives one of his greatest performances ever as Max Schumacher, his craggy, middle-aged producer, Faye Dunaway offers a terrifyingly obsessed performance as the ratings-mongering programming exec, Robert DuVall is downright evil as the president of the network accountable only to their corporate owners (Again, sound familiar?), Beatrice Straight holds the record for least amount of screen time for an Oscar-winning performance as Max's wife, and a whole slew of supporting actors and actresses perform admirably and make this arguably the best-acted film of all time. Sidney Lumet also turns in one of the finest directorial entries of his storied career, and he brings Paddy Chayefsky's amazing script to life. Network didn't spawn an entire subgenre of film like Rocky, so in that regard, perhaps the best choice for the Best Picture Oscar was made. But the superior film by far is the one I'm writing about now, and while I can't quite decide if I prefer it or All the President's Men, it is without a doubt required viewing for anyone worth their salt about movies.
The Good: Since I can't pick just one of the phenomenal performances, I'll go for the script, complete with its incredibly prescient indictments of television.
The Bad: Is it a little preachy? Nah, never mind. There's nothing wrong with this movie.
The Skinny: #214, eh? I'd probably put it in my personal top 25, but I guess I'll be happy that it's on the list at all. I'm not sure if I expected that.