Directed by Sidney Lumet.
Starring Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Robert Duvall, Peter Finch, Ned Beatty, Wesley Addy, Cindy Grover, Beatrice Straight and Ken Kercheval.
When a news anchorman threatens to kill himself on air the corporate bodies find every way they can to exploit his rantings for ratings.
It’s amazing to think that in the course of nearly 40 years, despite all the advances we have made in the world, not a lot really changes. And one watch of Network, Sidney Lumet’s 1976 satirical drama about corporate greed in the face of human tragedy, is enough to convince you that the goalposts may move and people may come and go but the almighty dollar is still king.
You only have to watch a Saturday evening of prime time television here in the UK to see that the situations and people depicted in Network aren’t that far-fetched, with ‘celebrities’ spouting their vacuous claptrap in front of worshipping audiences who just want to hear more and will dutifully clap their hands when cued and then go out and do the bidding of the evangelical TV host. Okay, the shouting of the “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” mantra that broken down newsreader-cum-mad prophet Howard Beale (Peter Finch) instructs his audience to shout from their rooftops is a little bit of a nonsense but the idea of a man losing his mind and attempting to reveal the truth about big business and the lies that it spreads becoming a national celebrity and then having his own rhetoric bastardised by the corporations that he seemingly rallies against is completely plausible in this world of instant fame and the notion of people becoming famous for doing very little except for appealing to the lowest common denominator. Just tune in to any of the terrestrial channels on Saturday evening for proof.
But Network is a movie first and a damn fine one at that. Although the narration claims that this is the story of Howard Beale, in many ways it isn’t. It is the story of Max Schumacher (William Holden), the executive in charge of the news programme on the UBS Television Network, who finds that morals don’t really mean a thing when it comes to ratings after his friend and news anchorman Howard Beale has a breakdown on air after getting fired for losing ratings and announces he is going to kill himself live on air. What follows is an essay on how cynical business people can manipulate human tragedy for their own ends as Beale and Schumacher come up against ruthless network boss Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall) and ambitious executive Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) as they try to use Beale’s popularity with viewers to try and gain ratings.
It’s a fascinating journey through the offices of power at a television network company but where Network comes a little unstuck is in the presentation of the main character’s personal lives, as the film gives us too much of the relationship between William Holden and Faye Dunaway’s characters that takes away from the much more interesting dramas unfolding at the TV station. Ultimately, this subplot is only really there to show us that there are real people with real emotions in this game of chasing ratings, and despite William Holden giving a heartfelt performance as a man who leaves his wife of 25 years after falling for the manipulative, younger TV executive it could have been streamlined a bit as the big scenes between Holden and Dunaway nearly bring the film to a halt before the real climax is cued up.
However, romantic subplots aside, Network is an excellent slice of satire that a lot of people should really watch if only to get an idea of how and why certain television programmes are made and how ratings really work. As entertainment it really is quite gripping as suited shyster after suited shyster try to undermine the next man just for a bigger piece of the corporate pie, and the performances from the main cast are as slick and dependable as you would expect. The script does veer off here and there and loses a little focus by the final act but the connect that we, as a viewing television audience in the 21st century, can make to the characters and the drama unfolding on the screen is more relevant today than it was back in 1976, when the exaggerated nature of some of the characters may have seemed a little fantastical. The subplots drag it down a little but at its core Network is quite possibly the most accurate portrayal of ruthless corporate cynicism that just seems to get more pertinent as time passes.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★