Network (United States, 1976)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

In motion pictures, there are essentially three types of satire: a fatuous, silly kind that emphasizes jokes to the exclusion of all else; a lightly comic approach that gently pokes fun at issues while developing a plot and characters; and a vicious, unrelenting attack that uses gallows humor to obtain laughs. The television news industry has been well represented on screen in each of the latter two categories. Broadcast News, starring William Hurt, Holly Hunter, and Albert Brooks, and directed by James L. Brooks, takes an affectionate-but-pointed look at what goes on behind-the-scenes. Network, director Sidney Lumet's contribution, goes much farther. It's a dark, dark comedy that ruthlessly skewers the news industry on a stake, then roasts it alive.

Network is brilliant, but it's not very funny in the conventional sense. Those looking for a bellyful of laughs would do better renting something else. This movie has its share of amusing moments, but the comedy is so bleak that it's best appreciated on the intellectual level. I can envision a viewer chuckling grimly and nodding his or her head at some of Network's nastiest barbs; I can't see this movie causing anyone to collapse in a paroxysm of laughter the way This is Spinal Tap does. Network is best enjoyed for what it is -- a blistering social commentary that uses exaggeration to make its point. Terms that should not be used to describe it: "light," "breezy," "inconsequential," "amiable," "pleasant," and "hilarious."

The story takes place in the news room of UBS-TV, a fictional, last-place network. The UBS Evening News, anchored by veteran Howard Beale (Peter Finch) is struggling, coming in way behind ABC, NBC, and CBS. In an attempt to reverse its fortunes, UBS decides to can Beale and bring in someone new. The night after Beale is told of his firing, he announces on-air that not only has his contract been terminated, but that he will kill himself during his final broadcast in one week. "I'm going to blow my brains out right here on this program," he states. The network is flooded with calls of shrieking protest. UBS' ratings go up.

After a discussion with UBS' news director, Max Schumacher (William Holden), Beale agrees to rectify the situation. So, that night, the anchor states that he has decided not to go ahead with the suicide, then proceeds to deliver a blistering attack on life in America, calling it "bullsh*t" and using several words that usually don't get past the people in Standards & Practices. Schumacher is fired for allowing the broadcast to go out, but, when the overnight ratings indicate that Beale's tirade was a huge hit, he discovers that he still has a job. Meanwhile, a programming executive at the network, Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway), pleads with the new head of UBS, Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall), for control of the news division. She claims she can make UBS News the most watched newscast in the country. When she's given the opportunity, she revamps the broadcast, turning it into a cross between a variety show and an evangelical program (which, in many ways, is a forerunner of today's tabloid gossip half-hours), with Howard Beale, the "Mad Prophet of the Airwaves" as the centerpiece.

While Beale is all-too-happy to be a part of Christensen's vision, Schumacher, a proponent of the "hard news" approach, is less thrilled. To pacify him, Christensen begins an affair with him -- one that causes Max to leave his wife. Meanwhile, on the air, things are good, with Beale turning into a national phenomenon. Then, inevitably, ratings begin to drop. Beale's message becomes too depressing for the public. Drastic measures are called for.

The final scene of Network is intended to be frankly shocking. And, when the movie was released in 1976, it was. Since then, however, television in general, and the news in particular, has become so openly grotesque and sensationalistic that Network's finale seems more credible than appalling. If you doubt this, consider the case of Pennsylvania state treasurer R. Budd Dwyer. On January 22, 1987, he called a news conference to discuss his recent conviction for embezzlement. After reading a short, prepared statement, he produced a gun, placed it in his mouth, and killed himself. At least one local TV station broadcast the entire event, and the audio of the suicide could be heard on every radio news update in the area.

Network's point is, of course, that ratings drive everything. Everyone in the broadcast industry recognizes this, and so does most of the public, so it's not exactly a revolutionary concept. What's unique is the film's outrageous approach to the subject. And Network doesn't just stop with the numbers -- it delves into the reasons why certain programs do better than others and what the viewing public really wants (which is often very different from what they say they want). With an unblinking frankness that is sometimes uncomfortable, Network examines three undeniable characteristics of TV viewers: a love of scandal, a taste for anything lurid or shocking, and a short attention span. More than 20 years ago, director Sidney Lumet and writer Paddy Chayefsky possessed a prophetic vision -- it's almost as if they saw Jerry Springer and Jenny Jones coming.

Network is not a perfect film. There are times when the pacing is uneven (I have always been curious about what was cut from the final version). A little too much time is occupied by a subplot involving the development of an hour long entertainment show based on the exploits of a group of terrorists (complete with a not-so-subtle Patty Hearst lampoon). On balance, those are small complaints, and they do little to mar Network's brilliant shine.

Network was brought to the screen by a film maker with a tremendous track record, and this was undoubtedly one of his greatest success stories. It earned Sidney Lumet, the director of 12 Angry Men, Serpico, Murder on the Orient Express, Dog Day Afternoon, and The Verdict, one of his four Best Director Oscar nominations (he hasn't won any). While I won't go so far as to claim that Network is Lumet's best effort, it ranks alongside Dog Day Afternoon (also about the corruption of the media) as one of his most acid and pointed social commentaries.

The cast, which earned five acting nominations (and won three), is stellar. The best-known member of the ensemble group is probably William Holden. An Oscar-winner for Stalag 17, Holden went on to star in such memorable films as Sunset Boulevard, Bridge on the River Kwai, and The Wild Bunch. Here, as the morally-burdened Max Schumacher, Holden brings depth and feeling to a crucial role, adroitly treading the line separating the starry-eyed idealist from the uncaring pragmatist. Schumacher is the character in Network that the audience most identifies with, and Holden's near-perfect performance is one reason why.

As Diana Christensen, Faye Dunaway won an Oscar for her work here. Her character is smart, manipulative, cold, and oh-so-sexy. Schumacher offers this pointed description of his lover: "I'm not sure she's capable of any real feelings. She's television generation. She learned life from Bugs Bunny." Alongside roles in Bonnie & Clyde and Chinatown, Dunaway's performance in Network remains among her most accomplished. It's easy to see what Schumacher saw in Christensen, even though he knew who and what she was -- she's as easy to love as she is to hate.

The third member of the main trio is Peter Finch, who was given a posthumous Oscar for the part of Howard Beale. Finch died of a heart attack some two months before the Awards ceremony. It was his second nomination (the other being for Sunday Bloody Sunday) and only victory. The actor's performance is masterful, as he essays a man on the cusp of desperation and madness. Finch gives Beale his power and charisma, making it possible to understand how a nationwide audience could be captivated by this latter-day evangelist.

The supporting cast is no less impressive. Robert Duvall plays the calculating head of UBS -- a man determined to lift the struggling network from the mire it has slipped into. Ned Beatty received an Oscar nomination for his performance as a businessman who warns Beale about whom he can and can't insult during his "sermons." And Beatrice Straight won a Supporting Actress statuette for portraying Schumacher's long-suffering wife, Louise, who is deeply hurt by her husband's rejection of their 25 year marriage in favor of an affair with Christensen. One passionate monologue in the second half of the film gained her the award.

In total, Network garnered 10 Oscar nominations; it walked away with four wins (Actor -- Finch, Actress -- Dunaway, Supporting Actress -- Straight, and Screenplay). Yet the awards are nothing more than a testimony to Network's strength as both a film and a satire about the realities of television and the relationship between news and entertainment. As Beale says in his most inspired speech: "Television is not the truth… Television is a circus, a carnival, a traveling troupe of acrobats, storytellers, dancers, singers, jugglers, sideshow freaks, lion tamers, and football players. We're in the boredom-killing business." This is Lumet's message to the audience, and it, like Network, is just as pertinent today as it was in 1976. In fact, a case could be made that the movie works better when viewed in the '90s, because things that seemed far-fetched 20 years ago aren't nearly as unbelievable today. One wonders if, in another few decades, a future generation will look at this film and guess whether it was "based on a true story."

Network (United States, 1976)

Run Time: 2:00
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Situations, Violence)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1