Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Guest Review: Network (1976)

by ScottDS

Contrary to popular belief, my personal top 10 list of movies doesn’t consist solely of John Landis comedies and Star Trek! There are actually a couple of real honest to God dramas on the list and Sidney Lumet’s classic media satire is one of them. Many consider the film ahead of its time, which is both a testament to the filmmakers and a sad comment on society today. (Though I’m as guilty as anyone else.)

The Plot

After learning that he only has two more weeks on the air due to low ratings, UBS news anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch) says he’s going to kill himself live on television. He’s subsequently fired but his friend Max Schumacher (William Holden), head of the news division, convinces the network brass to allow Beale a dignified exit. Back on the air, Beale goes into a fit, describing life as “bulls---,” and has to be dragged off the set. Naturally, this causes a spike in ratings and the brass decide to keep him on. This culminates in his famous “I’m as mad as Hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” speech. Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway), head of entertainment, manages to convince network exec Frank Hackett (Robert Duval) to slot the evening news under her division so she can develop it with Schumacher, with whom she begins an affair. She also develops a docudrama series featuring a radical terrorist group, the Ecumenical Liberation Army (a parody of the Symbionese Liberation Army).
The Howard Beale Show quickly becomes the highest-rated TV show in history. Max and Diana’s affair intensifies, causing Max to leave his wife. The affair doesn’t last as Max is eventually alienated by Diana’s emotional instability and obsession with work. Beale finds out that the conglomerate that owns UBS will be sold to a Saudi company, and encourages viewers to protest. The network brass are in a panic and Beale is taken to meet Arthur Jensen (Ned Beatty), head of the parent company, who preaches his “corporate cosmology” and persuades Beale to preach this new “evangel.” This causes ratings to sink but Jensen won’t allow the network to fire Beale. Instead, Christensen, Hackett, and the other brass decide to have him killed on the air by the ELA. And that’s exactly what happens. Howard Beale: “…the first known instance of a man who was killed because he had lousy ratings.”

What Draws Me to This Film

I was originally hesitant to review this film. It’s a bit above my pay grade! Sidney Lumet? He directed movies for adults! Paddy Chayefsky? He was a genius satirist! The characters in this movie use ten-cent words like “encroachment”! But here we are.
The actors are excellent. Chayefsky, Dunaway, and Finch (posthumously) won Oscars, Holden and Beatty were nominated, and Beatrice Straight won an Oscar for her five (!) minutes of screen time as Holden’s beleaguered wife. Holden’s famous speech might get all the attention but I absolutely love Beatty’s speech later in the film. It’s a force of nature and the scene is lit and shot in such a way that suggests Beatty’s character might be a higher power of some kind.

For anyone who’s interested in filmmaking (or knows anyone who’s interested), I highly recommend Sidney Lumet’s book Making Movies. Lumet was never really known for any kind of visual style (i.e. he never wanted the audience to notice) but for this film, he and acclaimed cinematographer Owen Roizman (The French Connection, The Exorcist) decided that since the film was about corruption, they would “corrupt” the camera. The film is lit in a naturalistic style, and then gradually the lighting becomes more and more artificial until it looks like a commercial. The newscasts were shot in a real newsroom and look convincing, though I still can’t believe how primitive on-screen graphics looked back then.
[sigh] To be fair, the film can be a little shrill at times. It’s one of those movies where characters sometimes seem to talk at each other rather than to each other. And Kathy Cronkite (daughter of Walter) is cringeworthy in her brief scene as the ELA’s kidnapped heiress. The scenes with the ELA might come across as a little over the top but in a world where we treat a sex tape star as effing royalty, is it so hard to believe a network would follow a terrorist group around chronicling their horrendous deeds? Network executives will do anything for ratings.
What I find interesting is that the film holds up (an opinion shared by a vast majority of critics and viewers) but what does that say about our society? It’s eerily prescient in its portrayal of corporate media influence, larger than life media personalities peddling their wares to an (over)eager audience, and the idea of reality television. (And this was 20 years before the Internet came into our homes!) I find it ironic that, while we seem to be in a new “Golden Age” of television in terms of drama, we also seem to have sunk in terms of political discourse and making celebrities out of the dregs of humanity. Why pay for writers and sets when you can follow around a bunch of nobodies who can’t resist the lure of the bright lights? Why bother studying acting or filmmaking when all you have to do to be a star nowadays is produce cute cat videos or f--- some dude? And why send a news crew to the middle of nowhere for some hard-hitting investigation when it’s easier to bring on two talking heads to debate… and debate… and debate. And then one of them inevitably says something deemed “offensive” and the news story goes away; the news story is now the debate itself. And a week later, we’ve all forgotten about it.
This guy charts it better than I can: the typical news story lifecycle, complete with requisite outrage, outrage about the outrage, and reactions from politicians who have nothing to do with the story. (Paging Arahsay Alinpay.) Such is life in these United States. In the end, we can only hope that some kind of sea change occurs and that the intelligent and thoughtful will ultimately rise above the bloviation and hate. Sadly, there’s no money in it. And yes, the problem lies on both sides. It’s why, even as a moderate Independent, I can appreciate a conservative website like, say, Commentarama or The Federalist and decry the psycho ward that is Breitbart. And no, George Soros didn’t pay me to say that!

In his fiery speeches, Beale praised the strength of the individual and lamented what he saw as our collective dehumanization. But there’s another problem: our lack of discernment – when everything is important or revolutionary or offensive, then nothing is!

I hope we’re not too late.

“After living with you for the last six months, I'm turning into one of your scripts. Well, this is not a script, Diana. There's some real, actual life going on here.”


ScottDS said...

P.S. I know I'm merely stating the obvious with most of the society/criticism stuff. As I said above, this one's a bit above my pay grade and I sat on it for a few months before deciding to write it. :-)

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Thanks for the review. I've always been of two minds about this one. It has moments of brilliance, but it feels sloppy to me as a movie. It feels like they weren't confident in their story, so they hesitate a lot. To me, that keeps it from becoming a truly effective parody.

(BTW, my email isn't working. I'll respond when it gets fixed. :))

ScottDS said...

Andrew -

Thanks, re: e-mail.

Can you elaborate about the hesitation? I always felt this was one movie where everyone is firing on all cylinders and everyone is on the same page about the material. And did you mean satire? It's not a parody and I never considered it to be one, though I know there's a fine line between the two.

And if you want to see another Paddy Chayefsky satire that isn't quite as polished, check out a movie called The Hospital with George C. Scott.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I meant satire, not parody. Sorry. My brain isn't firing.

On the hesitation, what always struck me about this film is that every time they get close to really throwing a punch, they pull it back at the last second and stop the idea before going through with it. For example, they exploit his outburst, but the films doesn't really let them show the utter cruelty and indifference it takes for someone to do that in real life. It's like the director was afraid that the audience would be turned off if he portrayed the characters as truly nasty. Compare it with something like The Devil Wears Prada where they have no such qualms about making Streep into a truly despicable person.

The result is that the film feels like it wants to be a biting satire, but they don't want to offend anyone. But if they don't have the conviction to say what they need to say, then why should I respect the film? That's my problem.

Kit said...


First, I am so sorry I didn't notice this review earlier. I am deeply sorry.

Now, I don't have much to say other than it's another movie on my long to-see list, that Fusion link about Cecil the Lion was frighteningly accurate, and I've heard that famous "mad as hell" speech probably 1,000 times.

Kit said...


It is hard to write about a movie that is "above one's pay-grade." How many times can you say "HOLY **** THIS MOVIE WAS AWESOME!!!"?

After a while it becomes repetitive.

ScottDS said...

Kit -

Re: your first comment, no worries! I definitely recommend the movie, as you read above. Plenty on my to-watch list as well.

Re: your second comment, yes it is. Funnily enough, there's an HBO original movie I want to review titled Path to War about LBJ and Vietnam. I think it's excellent (and at nearly 3 hours, more fulfilling than the Churchill films you reviewed). But Vietnam is another topic above my pay grade.

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