Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (February 15, 2006)
If nothing else, 1976’s Network accurately predicted the existence of the Fox TV network. 30 years ago, who thought that we’d really come to a day when programs of real-life attacking animals and fleeing criminals would become successful and commonplace? Paddy Chayefsky knew, apparently, as his prescient script tells the tale of a foundering network that takes advantage of radicals and the insane to boost ratings.
At the start of the film, long-time UBS news anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch) is being forced to retire due to sagging viewership. Due to a number of personal concerns, his job was all he had, so he announces on the air that he plans to kill himself. Rather than seek counseling or support for the clearly-troubled man, the higher-ups - mainly boss Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall) - decide to keep Beale on the air since his stunt sparked ratings.
This starts an escalating cycle of outrageous stunts and events designed to keep viewers glued to their screens. Beale gets his own “last angry man” show through which to preach his doctrine, while other seemingly-absurd programs also hit the air. Entertainment programmer Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) is given the reins of the news division after throwback Max Schumacher (William Holden) is fired. She adopts a tone of outrageousness that brings droves of new eyes to the network.
All of this activity begs the question: how far will the TV folks go to maintain ratings? As given in Network, the answer seems to be “exceedingly far”, and frankly, it’s hard to dispute the film’s hypothesis. On one hand, much of the action seems absurd and is the kind of programming one would not expect to ever see hit the airwaves. The network’s solution to Beale’s declining ratings makes its point but seems ever-so-slightly ridiculous.
However, in this day and age, it’s tough to say where the line will be drawn. How unbelievable would many of today’s shows have seemed 30 years ago? Keep in mind that Network appeared not very long after a show like All in the Family could cause a stir because it allowed us to hear the flush of a toilet - how could they have foreseen what we now watch regularly?
As a satire and a prophecy, Network works well. In the former category, the best elements are those that concern a radical group who film their crimes as the basis for a weekly program. Some of Network’s most incisive moments come from the scenes in which we watch them become increasingly caught up in the world of high-stakes TV and learn how to “talk the talk”.
Network also boasts pretty solid acting. Most of the performers verge on being over the top. Dunaway always was a camp queen, and she can’t resist chewing a little scenery. However, those tendencies seem fairly appropriate for power-hungry Diana, one of the toughest women ever to grace a movie screen. She’s a vicious piece of work who won’t let anyone stand in her way, but Dunaway keeps her from becoming a simple mannish stereotype.
Dunaway won the Oscar for her work, as did Finch. In doing so, he became a famous piece of Academy Award trivia as one of very few actors to grab a prize posthumously; Finch died in early 1977 before the ceremony in the spring. He offers a nice turn as Beale. I’m not sure I ever bought him as a TV anchor, as there’s something slightly off-kilter about him that makes him appear wrong for that task, but he’s quite able to portray Beale’s changing moods and levels of sanity. He makes these variations seem natural and organic without becoming forced or staged.
Holden’s Max is nominally the movie’s lead, but in retrospect, he doesn’t seem to have much to do. He tries to assist Howard, and he eventually beds Diana, but otherwise he’s left without a lot of work. However, I suppose Max acts as the film’s symbolic center and stands in for the viewers through his affair with Diana. He’s tempted by her flashy and tawdry appeal but eventually realizes the emptiness and returns to the stability of his old life. There’s a not-too-subtle message made even more explicit by a monologue in which Max compares Diana to TV itself.
Probably the greatest flaw of Network is that it often comes across as heavy-handed and preachy. This seems especially problematic because TV is such an easy target. It’s not as though many support the small screen as a bastion of high-class intellectualism, so attempts to knock its frequent stupidity appear somewhat pointless and arrogant.
If Network was a call to people to wake up and stop accepting whatever the tube spoon feeds to them, it went unheeded. As a film, it suffers from some of the forced social commentary typical for works of the era, but it remains an interesting and provocative piece.