DVD Review of
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 2/22/08
Film director Sidney Lumet is, with the possible exception of Robert Wise, the most underrated director in Hollywood history. When one looks at the list of great films in Lumet’s career: 12 Angry Men, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Fail-Safe, Serpico, Murder On The Orient Express, Dog Day Afternoon, and a handful of others, one marvels, not only at what he accomplished, but that he’s spent a quarter-century having churned out nothing but mediocrity since 1982’s The Verdict. Yet, of all the films in his canon, perhaps the best, and certainly the most complex, was 1976’s Network- the greatest black comedy this side of Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love the Bomb. It was to corporate America what Strangelove was to the military industrial complex.
Written by the nonpareil Paddy Chayefsky, Network is not only a prescient film, but still a cogent one, as remarkable as that claim seems. Whereas many films from the years in between its release and now have dated badly, the same cannot be said of Network. Like other visionary films, from Metropolis to The Trial, Network not only crafted a world unto itself, but a world that, in large part, has seen its day realize. Yes, there are no PC’s on the desks of the network stooges, but other than that, the depiction of corporate America’s deadly vapidity, its whoring of life and death and war and suffering into mere commodities, has all come true. Reality tv has shown that the only thing that Chayefsky’s and Lumet’s film has not yet seen come true is the assassination on live television that closes the film. This oddly vatic quality raises the question of whether the film can even rightly be called a satire. Perhaps a prophecy is closer to the mark, especially in how the fictive fourth network, UBS (Union Broadcasting Systems), so closely resembles the real current fourth network, then a decade from its creation, FOX.
The tale is one that seems not so outlandish any longer- Howard Beale (Peter Finch), widowed, depressed, and alcoholic network news anchorman for the UBS Evening News, has learnt that he will be fired due to low ratings. Beale’s producer and friend, Max Schumacher (William Holden) informs him of this, and this seems to be the final straw for Beale, who glibly announces his impending retirement, and that he will also suicide on next week’s show. Few techs in the studio are even paying attention until one of them who was freaks out. Network bigwigs freak out, yet there is never a sense of real overacting- save, perhaps for Finch’s role. This is why the film is so devastating, for Chayefsky and Lumet were intimately involved with network politics from the earliest days of television, and drew from their decades of experience to couch craziness in acceptability.
At first, the network, led by Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall)- a hatchet man for CCA, the conglomerate that owns UBS, wants to crucify Beale, but then, when Beale’s allowed a final mea culpa, and rants again on the bullshit nature of life, and becomes a ratings hit, the network decides to make the newscast a game show sort of variety hour called simply The Howard Beale Show, with Beale as the ‘mad prophet’ of network television, destined to ‘denounce the hypocrisies of our time.’ Chief among Beale’s supporters is a soulless shrew who heads programming, Diana Christensen (Fay Dunaway- who won the Best Actress Oscar). Schumacher, who soon begins an affair with Dunaway, believes that his old friend’s mental breakdown is being exploited, but once Beale’s catchphrase- ‘I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!’- takes off, Schumacher finds himself out of a job, but in Christensen’s bed, having left his long suffering wife, Louise (Beatrice Straight), who won a Best Supporting Axctress Oscar for less than ten minutes of screen time. What really works about the few scenes that Holden shares with Straight, is how straight and mature they play the breakup scene. Yet, while Straight, Dunaway, and Finch all won Oscars for their roles, the best acting job in the film is turned in by Holden, who is the only actor that really bridges the comic and dramatic elements of the film. He is simply brilliant- conveying decades of corporate bullshit in his eyes and facial wrinkles, and Chayefsky highlights his understated but rock solid acting with the character’s own ability to surmise his fate, and comment upon it as a network sportscaster might. Interestingly, the three actors who did win the Oscars, never share any screen time together, although all share major time with Holden.
There are several brilliant realized subplots, the best being Christensen’s desire to exploit a Patty Hearst like terrorist situation into an ongoing reality tv show, The Mao Tse-Tung Hour, to follow Beale’s show. That, too, becomes a hit, and has a wickedly dead on scene wherein the Angela Davis-like female terrorist tries to protect her legal rights to the programming from others- including the Communist Party, from getting a share. All seems to be going well for the network, as it rises from the ratings cellar, until Beale turns from inveighing against evildoers in the world at large to those who attempt to buy out his own network’s conglomerate, Saudi Arabians. He urges his viewers to bombard the White House with telegrams and have the FCC stop the takeover (ah, yes, recall the days when the FCC had any relevance). They do, and this puts Hackett in serious corporate trouble. This leads to one of the best scenes in the film, between Beale and UBS Chairman Arthur Jensen (Ned Beatty), who rails against Beale with his own corporate cosmology, in a darkened corporate boardroom. It resonates with Beale because it echoes and earlier dream he had of an incorporeal being’s communion with him. Thus converted, Beale starts spewing Jensen’s dogma on the air, and ratings tank.
Hackett and Christensen want to fire Beale, but Jensen refuses to budge, so they and other corporate lackeys conspire to get the terrorist group to assassinate Beale on the air, as Christensen orders, ‘Let’s kill the son of a bitch!’ As his program starts, the deed is done, and the film ends, with the intermittent narrator (Lee Richardson) declaiming that this film was about the first man ever killed for low ratings. Death, as in that other gem of black comedy- Dr. Strangelove, wins in the end.
The film runs for only two hours, yet seems much longer- but in the good sense, in that all of its vignettes are so involving and memorable that they leave impressions beyond their fleeting. The Warner Brothers Two Disk Special Edition DVD shows the film in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Disk One has the film with a great commentary by Lumet, who is never too fellatric, and always scene specific. He rarely rambles and only expands one’s knowledge and appreciation of what is going on. That’s a rarity. His best moments come when he describes the subtle lighting effects that alter throughout the film- from wholly naturalistic to almost surrealistic by the assassination. And he’s correct when he claims that such a shift would likely be missed had he not pointed it out, for the cinematography by Owen Roizman is stellar, yet wholly apropos to the scenes. Unlike some cinematography that is showoffy, this film’s is all about framing and lighting, such as in the terrific boardroom showdown between Beale and Jensen, where the lighting makes Jensen seem both comforting and diabolical simultaneously. There’s also a theatrical trailer, and Disk Two has a Dinah! tv talk show episode with Chayefsky, as well as a very good The Making of ‘Network’ documentary, and an interview with Lumet. It’s a really great DVD package, and was part of a three-pack of films along with Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon and All The President’s Men called Controversial Classics Volume Two: The Power Of Media.
Network is a terrific film, and very funny- albeit not in a guffaw inducing way, but in its acidity; and is arguably a great one. It certainly has a great screenplay, and the only real argument against its greatness is that the characters are too briefly sketched- with Holden’s Schumacher the lone exception. But, his is really the central character of the film. All the other main characters commit personal, career, or ethical hari-kiri. Only his comes to his senses before personal immolation. It is a superb acting job, and the best in the film. That he lost the Best Actor nod to Finch is a shame, for while Finch is terrific as a madman, it’s always the easier sort of role to play. To give one an idea of the competition, realize that Robert De Niro was also up for the award for Taxi Driver.
If Network is not a great film it is certainly, as Lumet mantras in his commentary, a prescient one. It is also proof that, despite what naysayers and masturbatory French cineastes might think, film is a writer’s medium, first and foremost, not a visual one, for Network shows that greatness is possible sans special effects and virtually no music- the film is void of a formal score. This lack, however, only heightens the realistic acidity of Chayefsky’s brilliant and funny words, which transcend satire and enter reportage, at times. Just watch the scene where Schumacher finally leaves Christensen, and ask yourself how much more powerful is that scene without a swelling musical crescendo, not to mention Chayefsky’s having Holden narrate his own exit, stage right? Go ahead, try to name me a film that reaches greatness in the other direction- with just special effects and music, and no screenplay of merit. Lo!
I recommend especially anyone under the age of thirty-five to watch this film, and they will see just how predictable the current lowest common denominator state of affairs, domestically and abroad, in the media and in day to day affairs, was, even decades in coming. This is because the core of a society’s problems never lie with its leaders nor its media, but with its citizens. This has played out not only internationally, with the rise of terrorism, but domestically, with the mute acceptance of corruption and civil rights infringements by the scared masses, as well as a refusal by the general electorate to refuse to vote for crooks and bums for elective office. Thus, the fictive raving idiots that shouted their madness, along with Howard Beale, back then are now railing in reality, on cable tv and in the blogosphere, now. And still no one is worried, and there’s no Chayefsky around to skewer the idiocy. Network exemplified what made the 1970s the last great era in American film- great writing, acting, and a deeper sense of what the art could do. Let’s hope that last era is not the final one, as well.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on The Moderate Voice website.]
Return to Bylines