At the time of its release in 1976 Network was considered shocking, provocative and exaggerated in its depiction of the venal lengths to which a national television network would go to bolster its ratings. The film was a critical success on first release and garnered four Oscars, four Golden Globes and a BAFTA for Peter Finch as Best Actor, and today it is considered one of the finest satires produced during that decade and the career highpoint of many of its participants.
On the verge of bankruptcy, the executives of the UBS network choose to terminate the contract of their senior news anchor, Howard Beale (Finch) due to falling ratings. With his private life in tatters and hurtling into a mental breakdown, Beale announces on-air that he will blow his brains out on a live broadcast one week thence. Justifiably outraged, the executives struggle to contain the fallout and instruct Beale to make an onscreen apology the next day.
Instead of this, he treats his audience to an off-the-cuff rant about the amount of “’bullshit” he has served up to them over the years. Sensing a ratings winner, recently-appointed programmer and dedicated ambulance chaser Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) persuades everyone to give Beale his head, much to their collective dismay. The resulting “News Hour,” a gaudy infotainment confection, is a spectacular success but things soon start to go awry as Howard’s tentative grip on sanity grows ever looser.
At the time the film was made, the USA was still reeling from the fallout of the Watergate Scandal only a couple of years earlier and senior politicians were regarded with mistrust and suspicion. The true beacons of integrity to the American public at that time were the senior news anchors such as Walter Cronkite who famously was officially regarded as the most trustworthy public figure in the USA. To release a feature film about the very public mental breakdown of such a figure would have been revolutionary and not a little distasteful at that time.
Written by Paddy Chayefsky (The Americanization of Emily, Paint Your Wagon) and directed by Sidney Lumet (12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon), to modern eyes Network looks eerily prescient and its fundamental themes about the surrender of personal liberty, dignity and scruples in pursuit of Mammon and celebrity could equally apply to the television of the 2010s, probably more so with the modern obsession with “reality” programming and celebrity culture.
However the film is also regarded by many as a fitting tribute to the talents of Peter Finch (A Town Like Alice, The Trials of Oscar Wilde), who following a period in career doldrums gave the performance of his life which sadly ended just after the film’s release and before he could reap the rewards. He would subsequently be awarded the first posthumous Best Actor Academy Award for his performance as well as a Golden Globe and the aforementioned BAFTA.
Despite the presence of established Hollywood heavyweights like William Holden (Sunset Boulevard, The Bridge on the River Kwai) and Robert Duvall (THX 1138, Deep Impact) in the cast, star billing goes to Faye Dunaway (Bonnie and Clyde, Eyes of Laura Mars) who would also scoop up all the best actress gongs for her performance.
Diana Christensen could easily have been portrayed as a two-dimensional cultural illiterate but Dunaway brings so much more to this character, and in her hands Christensen is intelligent, cultured and self-aware but also thoroughly immoral and ruthlessly ambitious. Her final solution to the Howard Beale “problem” is breathtaking in its audacity.
Back in 1976, the events depicted in Network were seen as extreme satire but with hindsight, the film is shockingly accurate. The rampant corporatism is a given but the way in which Chayefsky predicted both reality television and a You Tube-like culture is astonishing.
Prior to Howard’s breakdown, Christensen’s main idea to save the station is to commission terrorist groups similar to the then-fashionable Symbionese Liberation Army to stage bank raids and other actions and film them surreptitiously for the network to then feature in weekly programming. There’s a definite sense that viewing culture was shifting towards both narcissistic spontaneous recordings and commissioned staged reality, both fundamental features of modern visual culture.
However Network is so much more than just a film about television. It is also a blistering anti-capitalist critique on the lengths corporations will go to in order to bolster their share price and profits as well as being a double-edged examination of herd mentality and champagne socialism.
Beale exhorts everyone to run to their windows and scream out what has become the film’s catchphrase, “I’m mad as Hell and I’m not gonna take this anymore,” which they do in their thousands, but instead of mobilising a revolutionary army all it succeeds in doing is providing a pool of clap-happy studio audience members, drones who lap up whatever dross is served to them, though by the end of the film their loyalty is rewarded in spades.
For this release Arrow have sourced an excellent copy of the film which is almost blemish-free. Unfortunately the dominant visual aesthetic in the mid-70s was for a very soft grainy image and to modern audiences used to heavily-graded pin-sharp digital imaging, this could be considered a drawback, however for us older viewers it’s just indicative of how we saw ourselves at that time.
There are two principal extras on this release. The first is an archive episode of the documentary series The Directors from 1999 profiling Lumet with contributions from many of the artists associated with him over the years.
The second is a newly-commissioned detailed account of the creation of the film narrated by Dave Itzkoff, author of Mad as Hell: The Making of Network and the Fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in Movies. These are supplemented by the now-obligatory fuzzy unrestored trailer from the archives.
The US release also featured an audio commentary by Lumet but this is absent from this UK release.