Synopsis: Newscaster Howard Beale has a message for those who package reports of cute puppies, movie premieres, and fender benders as hard news: “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore.” Sidney Lumet directs Paddy Chayefsky’s satire (an Academy Award-winning screenplay) about the things people do for love . . . and ratings. Three performers won Oscars. Best Actress Faye Dunaway is the TV exec guarding ratings like a tigress protecting cubs. Best Actor Peter Finch is Beale, whose airwave rants become a phenomenon. And William Holden, Robert Duvall and Best Supporting Actress Beatrice Straight add to the fierce vitality.
eyelights: Peter Finch. Robert Duvall. its prescient satire.
eyesores: its romantic side-story.
“We’ll tell you anything you want to hear, we lie like hell.”
Sometimes I really hate marketing. I remember very clearly the first times I came face-to-face with ‘Network’ on home video (having been too young to see it in cinemas at the time of its release), and it was so uninviting to me: it showed an intense Faye Dunaway at a podium.
At least, that’s how I remember it.
Those VHS tapes and laserdiscs are long gone, so I can’t spotcheck that memory, and I can’t find that picture anywhere – but it doesn’t change the fact that, to me, the film didn’t seem even remotely interesting. Had Peter Finch’s “Mad as Hell” face been etched into my mind instead, then ‘Network’ would likely have intrigued me.
But it didn’t, and I avoided it for many years, not knowing what it was and not caring whatsoever. The sad reality is that, even though I went through pretty much every movie available to me in the mid-‘90s, this was one of the few that remained on the shelf. It shows just how much of a deterrent one image can be.
I had no idea what I was missing: fact is… ‘Network’, despite its uninspiring title, is a must-see film.
It’s a satire of journalism and the media, in particular TV news, at a time when the line between responsible journalism and tabloid fodder was starting to be crossed. Not only is it satirical, but it predicted the coming of so-called news shows such as those found on Fox News, which are just an extension of Jerry Springer.
In ‘Network’, the setting is a fictional broadcasting company called UBS. Its ratings are dismally low and, in a bid for success, with a push of the programming division they decide to exploit any sensational story they stumble across, even if it’s irresponsible to do so. Soon, they stop reporting the news and begin to make the news.
It’s as hilarious as it is prescient. It’s amusing for two reasons: firstly because the antics seem slightly outrageous when shown in contrast with typical television standards, but it’s also amusing because it’s clear that the filmmakers had no idea just how true this would become – little did they know that, as exaggerated as it seemed then, it would seem par-for-the-course now.
But what makes ‘Network’ great goes well beyond the satire. If anything it’s a fascinating film because it dares to discuss the effect of unfettered ambition on society: how the quest for success can blur the line between responsibility and irresponsibility, how it can even lead good people astray. Desiring to win at all costs, we can easily forget to do the right thing.
And, sadly, some people just don’t know the difference.
In particular, there’s Faye Dunaway’s sharkwoman, a programming director so eager to land victories and so confident in her ability to deliver them that she doesn’t really see the impact that she has on the people close to her or even how her actions have longer-standing repercussions. She is not an evil woman, per se, but she absolutely doesn’t have a moral compass to speak of.
The same cannot be said for her boss, played here with aplomb by Robert Duvall. A cutthroat boardroom bully with ambitions of his own, he desperately wants to rack up profits and believes that the news division, a money-loser for time immemorial, is an albatross around the corporation’s neck. He will do anything to bring the numbers up, irrespective of who gets crushed in the process.
Then there’s Peter Finch’s character, an alcoholic anchorman who has seen better days and who loses his grip on sanity on the air. He will be a pawn in this game, given a chance to speak out his delirious mind to the masses, rousing them with his fury, but only so long as the ratings remain high. His ache is a disposable commodity, easily replaced at the drop of a profit margin.
Peter Finch is on fire here. I don’t believe that I’ve seen him anywhere else, but this is a remarkable performance on all levels. On the one hand, we empathize with his pain, on another we relate to his anger. And, immediately thereafter, we are amused by the grotesquery that becomes his daily displays of outrage and bile. He’s like a modern day prophet. For hire. A prophet for profit.
It’s no wonder that he won an Academy Award for his performance: it’s blistering.
Meanwhile there’s William Holden. Never a favourite of mine, he manages to convey enough compassion and emotional intelligence that you can’t help but like his character, Finch’s boss, Duvall’s nemesis, and Dunaway’s lover. Even though his personal life falls apart due to the many poor choices he makes, one can’t help but feel that he has heart – it’s just that it has led him astray.
The cast is one of the principle reasons for watching this movie. Given the nature of the material, a limp complement would have hampered it to a major degree (case-in-point: ‘Shattered Glass’, featuring Hayden Christensen). Thankfully, the people in ‘Network’ are strong enough to deliver its biting -if somewhat heavy-handed- message. And its humour.
Honestly, I can’t help but wonder what the filmmakers would have thought back then, had they been told that their picture was to be more fact than fiction, that our society was mere steps removed from this mad farce. I wonder if they would have been shocked or if they would have been pleased with themselves for their clairvoyance.
That would be ironic, actually. After all, if anything, the film is about human ego.
Ultimately, though, ‘Network’ is a terrifically entertaining and thought-provoking picture. In this day and age of media manipulation and fabrications it’s worth seeing and discussing. More than ever. What is the meaning of success? What is truth? To whom are we responsible as individuals? To whom are we responsible as one of the many?
Despite all appearances, ‘Network’ brings these and many other questions of import to light. Thought-provoking motion pictures such as this one aren’t a dime a dozen. See it.
“All I know is, you’ve got to get mad. You’ve got to say, “I’m a human being, goddamn it. My life has value.”
Date of viewing: March 22, 2013