Network (1976), or Syndicated Madness

2 12 2009

Thanks to Jason for recommending this film to me! It was a joy to watch this, and it’s always good to know you’re not the only one out there who has seen something. Even though it’s considered a classic, that doesn’t mean anyone in your town has seen it!

Sidney Lumet’s classic look into the executive mindset of 1970s television begins with a firing. Howard Beale, long-running anchor for UBS television network. He’s been loyal to the network for decades, but none of that seems to matter to the executives. Depressed and angry beyond consolation, he spouts out angrily at the end of a broadcast that he will commit suicide live on camera. The execs decide to pull him from the line-up immediately, but not before one final broadcast so that he might leave with some dignity. Beale’s last night on the air, though, is far from dignified, however, as he spews an angry rant at his bosses, the network, and society in general. While the executives are outraged, they soon find that the ratings have skyrocketed, and Beale’s vitriol seems to be just what America is looking for. One young producer named Diana Christensen, sees Beale’s antics as a chance to change the face of the network by merging entertainment with news. She starts planning a new show with real political extremists to hype up ratings while simultaneously building up Beale to be something gaudy and psychotic. They give him his own show and bill him as a mad prophet, allowing him to vent his psychotic frustrations on the air for all his new-found fans to eat up. Will Christensen succeed with her plans to turn the media into even more of a spectacle? Will Beale go too far with his diatribes? Will any of this insanity ever stop as long as the ratings are good?

Network is an eerie forerunner to the future. In a day and age where entertainers like Glenn Beck, Jon Stewart, and Rush Limbaugh steer the news like oarsmen on an unmoored boat ride to Who-Knows-Where, Network seems even more relevant than ever before! It’s a story about the lunatics running the asylum, but the administrators still come by to watch the insanity and reap their reward from the duped and the swindled. Written by Paddy Chayefsky, Oscar-winning writer of The Hospital, it’s a hilarious, frightening, and completely unpredictable look at the world of the modern media machine, and how news quickly turns to firebrand tactics at the flick of the switch, and how ratings are the bottom line in American broadcasting. Well written, punchy dialog takes this film from great to excellent, and with legendary lines like, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take this anymore!”, its a story that’s cemented in the annals of cinema forever.

A fantastic cast gives Network its real power. Peter Finch is the spirit behind this film. He plays Howard Beale to uproarious effect, the news anchor who totally loses it and becomes beloved by America for it. This was his last role before his death, and he remains only one of two people to ever receive a posthumous Oscar for acting. He really sells himself as a man pushed over the edge. He seems so normal in the beginning, but perhaps he was crazy the whole time, because the utter strangeness in his performance during the clip above really makes me question who this character is. Faye Dunaway is delightfully campy as Diana Christensen, the producer from hell who is determined to shake things up in UBS. She has an agenda, she has a plan, and even though at times she gets in over her head, she is one vicious lady. Dunaway plays her rough, mean, and close to the chest, frightening any man in the scene with her a little bit. I like it. I also enjoyed William Holden as Schumacher, the news division President of UBS. He’s the reliable old guard character that Holden played so well in his later years. Holden makes him brazen, unshakable, but emotionally genuine, especially when it comes to the treatment and exploitation of his old buddy Howard Beale. And remember how Jason mentioned a young Robert Duvall in this when he recommended this? He’s here, and he’s damn good as Christensen’s boss, Frank Hackett. He was authoritative even back then! He’s a pushover for Dunaway’s Christensen, but I wouldn’t want to disobey an order from him, because Duvall looks like he would bust someone’s jaw in his sprightly youthful frame and his character’s rough demeanor.

Damn it, watch Network! I think it’s definitely top-notch, a true American classic that has grown even more relevant as time has gone on. The madness inherent in our 24-hour news networks resembles all-too vividly Howard Beale’s shock-value entertainment news, and so hopefully the prophetic ending of Network, while highly unlikely, does not come to resemble our present in any day and age. It’s exceptionally acted, well-written, and immaculately shot, and for that I give Network 10 Mad Prophets out of 10! My highest recommendation!

Stay with me, folks! The Machinist is coming up!

P.S- On a side note, I like Jon Stewart, and think he’s hilarious. But he is not a real news outlet, so I felt compelled to use him as an example.