Film review by Jason Day of Network, the seventies satire about the machinations of a failing TV network to capitalise on the on air breakdown of their esteemed news anchor, played by Peter Finch. Co-starring William Holden and Faye Dunaway.
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After years of poor ratings, esteemed UBS evening news anchorman Howard Beale (Peter Finch) is fired and suffers a breakdown. He states live on air that he will commit suicide the next week, leading to a sudden spike in the ratings.
Ambitious programming executive Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway), whose aim is to produce edgy, controversial series that ‘articulate the popular rage’ to help the network out of its slump, seizes on the opportunity to exploit Beale’s mad prophesying. All goes well until Beale starts raving about a financial deal between UBS and a foreign state.
All I want out of a life is a 30 share and a 20 rating. (Faye Dunaway, as Diana Christensen in Network)
I’ve worked in media relations for more than ten years and have worked with some wonderful and horrific characters.
One manager took delight in satirising and humiliating colleagues, reducing one to tears and would ‘playfully’ hit male members of her team on the head with a pen as she walked past.
Another senior member of the team, whose obsession with the media resembled Diana’s slavish lust for ratings, very often dictated what you said to colleagues when you were phoning them. Once, they spoke about why I and the team were letting them down:
When I get up, I watch the news. Then I eat, then I spend time with my family.
When I get home, I watch the news. Then I eat, then I spend time with my family.
Mad, mad, mad as hell.
Diana says she is inept at everything in her life, except her work and one can readily see that in a number of key scenes. After having dinner and then making love to male menopausal, washed up news legend Max (William Holden), she never stops talking about the ratings. After climaxing, she takes a breather…and then resumes the conversation without a blush.
Quite whether my colleague ever stretched to such a bedside manner I, thankfully, have no knowledge.
Network is a Dickensian film. Not because of it’s setting, but because writer Chayefsky (who won an Academy Award for his coruscating screenplay) takes the type of people you would see in most urban offices, combines them with a writers’ imagination and splendidly exaggerates them to the point of pure fantasy.
Network is, in fact, less satire and more outrageous fairytale, swapping the romantic castles of middle ages Europe and placing the wicked witch and brave hero into the towering, impersonal cityscape of seventies New York.
The film is too hysterical to squarely land all it’s punches about the corrupting power of the little box in the corner of our living rooms.
More than one scene had me shaking my head and thinking “Enough already!” When Beale, who rescues and then almost destroys UBS after one rant, is ushered into a boardroom to meet with a senior executive (played by Ned Beatty).
The lights are dimmed to signal his ascent into this Hades like enclave, the gloomy green desk lamps representing the absent board members. Beatty delivers a stupidly over the top, fire and brimstone speech about the great ‘holistic system of systems’ that means UBS’ survival depends on the Arabian money Beale has urged his audience to try and stop.
“You have meddled with the primal forces of nature, Mr Beale…and you will atone!”
Madness dealt with by madness, but the scene, despite Finch’s blissfully enraptured face as he listens to this demigod of programming, is never once convincing. Unbelievably, Beatty was Oscar nominated for this shameful hamming.
It’s a great script, of course, but Chayefsky over-writes. His dialogue is wonderfully, artfully constructed, with great big, smashing words thundering into our ears. But frequently it is all too, too much, sounding convoluted and artificial when it should command.
Finch won a posthumous Best Actor Oscar for his gripping, demented performance (he died month’s after the film’s release. His widow Eletha tearfully accepted it on the night). As Beale’s death is announced by other news stations, an advert for Canada Dry plays at the same time, signifying his commercial worth.
His character claims to have been gifted with a beautiful inner light, but it’s Dunaway who has seemingly been supranaturally possessed. Fixing her subordinates with a deathly, basilisk like stare, swiftly wafting through the office all too aware of the critical looks the office underlings give her, then sweetly turning on the charm and fluttering her eyelashes, her Diana is a revelation. She is a villain for the corporate age long before Wall Street‘s (1987) Gordon Gecko. She too, won an Oscar and would go on to portray other singularly determined career women.
There were further Oscars for Beatrice Straight as Holden’s loyal wife and for Chayefsky whose script, despite it’s jarring penchant for over the top shrillness, always maintains the audiences attention. “I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take this anymore!” has become a classic movie line and perfectly describes the move.
Cast & credits
Director: Sidney Lumet.
Producer: Howard Gottfried.
Writer: Paddy Chayefsky.
Camera: Owen Roizman.
Music: Elliot Lawrence.
Sets: Philip Rosenberg.
Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Peter Finch, Robert Duvall, Wesley Addy, Ned Beatty, Beatrice Straight, Arthur Burghardt, Bill Burrows, John Carpenter, Conchata Ferrell.