SPOILER ALERT: If you've never seen this film, stop what you're doing right now and fix that. Seriously, it is that good. In my opinion, this film contains the greatest screenplay of any film I've ever seen. And the acting is incredible. But I do encourage you to watch the film before reading my review.
I wonder what it was like to watch Network when it first came out in 1976. I watched it for the first time just in the past few years. To see it today is to see it as a biting examination of the corruption and sensationalism of modern media. But back then, it was billed as satire - a howling story that its own movie poster described as "a perfectly outrageous motion picture."
The genius of Paddy Chayefsky's screenplay is that it truly is both. The film is hilarious at points in a darkly satrical way. But throughout, it is also a prescient work of prophecy. It completely nails the corruption that has brought about our current media landscape that thirsts after ratings and page views.
For my money, Chayefsky's screenplay is the greatest of any film I've ever seen. He won an Academy Award for it, one of four Oscars that Network ended up winning (more on that later). The language flows effortlessly from the mouths of the movie's actors - all of whom give incredible performances. The vocabulary is ornate, but it never feels verbose. The industry jargon mixed in makes us feel that this is exactly how these characters would talk, even if we've never been in the back rooms of a TV news studio before.
I have been in those rooms. In college, I worked as an associate producer for a local news station. All the scenes that take place in the production room with directors and executive producers sitting and watching the increasingly unbelievable antics of fictional UBS news anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch) felt so incredibly real to me. If something as ludicrous as this were to happen on air, this is how the producers would react. Much of the credit for this certainly goes to Chayefsky for crafting the screenplay, but legendary director Sidney Lumet also deserves plenty of praise for his incredible work on the film.
What happens is that Beale has reached the end of his rope. The movie's opening voice-over tells us that Beale's ratings have been falling. His time as anchor is coming to a close. He commiserates with his longtime pal, Max Schumacher, who makes a drunken pitch that they should start doing a "suicide of the week" segment on the news after Beale threatens to kill himself. Beale takes everyone by surprise, however, when he announces on-air the next night that he will kill himself in a week's time during the nightly news broadcast. The production crew cannot believe what they've heard. And the outrageous plot begins to take shape.
And this is why I opened this review the way I did. In 1976, this film surely seemed outrageous. But it is impossible to view it that way today - not when we have reality TV and nightly news segments that increase in sensationalism every night. We live in a culture driven by ratings and page views - the exact type of culture that Network portrays.
For Chayefsky to have predicted this trend is utterly astounding. He gets it spot on. Sure, the satire still brings out laughs throughout, but I don't feel that the plot is outrageous. It feels like a drama to me. And so, I wonder what it must have felt like to view this upon its release.
But I cannot go any further without calling out this incredible cast for specific praise. Peter Finch is fantastic in the lead role as embattled anchorman Howard Beale. He won an Academy Award for Best Actor for this performance (more on that later as well). He was not the only one from this film to take home an acting award, however. Faye Dunaway won Best Actress for her incredible turn as programming executive Diana Christensen. In my opinion, Dunaway gives the film's best performance. She is cold and distant. Her character is described in the film as "television incarnate." The other acting award went to Beatrice Straight for her supporting performance as Louise Schumacher, the wife of UBS news director Max Schumacher (William Holden). Straight's performance is notable, as it still holds the record for shortest amount of screen time for an Academy Award-winning performance (five minutes and two seconds). Though they did not win Academy Awards, Holden (Best Actor) and Ned Beatty (Best Supporting Actor) were both nominated in their respective categories. Beatty plays the CEO of the holding company overseeing the UBS takeover that makes up much of the film's plot. He gives an incredible performance, and he anchors my favorite scene in the entire film.
Another incredible aspect of the film's screenplay is how its back-and-forth plot nature never becomes confusing. Beale is fired, then he's brought back. Schumacher is the head of the news division, then his power dwindles, then he's fired, then he's back. Schumacher and Christensen begin to flirt but then Schumacher's firing creates distance, then they begin an affair, then it ends. But none of it ever feels confusing, because Chayefsky always makes the intentions of the characters clear. For instance, we know exactly why Beale is brought back on air even after he has made a complete fool of himself and the station - he got good ratings.
And it is this sentiment that makes the film such a prophetic work. Think of our current media landscape. Salacious details about presidents and other world leaders are common news headlines. We don't bat an eyelash about blood and gore on the nightly news. Reality TV invites us to turn our focus down to the muck and mire of interactions that are not representative of actual reality in the slightest. In many ways our view of reality is what has been told to us through a screen - this is the outrageous concept that Network presents, and unfortunately, it has come true.
My favorite scene comes late in the film after Beale has become the "mad prophet of the airwaves." His show is a major ratings success, but it all begins to come crashing down when Beale discusses a business deal between CCA - the corporate conglomerate that owns UBS - and an even larger Saudi Arabian conglomerate. Because of Beale's on-air tirade, the business deal falls through. Unsurprisingly, the CCA brass is not pleased about this. At the top of that list is Arthur Jensen (Beatty), and he calls Beale to his office to have a talk.
Beatty is absolutely incredible in this scene. His delivery is spot-on for every line, and a few of them have become some of my favorite lines of dialogue. Simply Google "You have meddled with the primal forces of nature" and watch this incredible scene take place.
Along with Beatty's delivery, the direction and cinematography work beautifully together as well. Jensen appears at the end of a long table in a dimly-lit conference room. The only source of light are these eerie, green lamps on the table. Our expression matches Beale's as he listen's to Jensen's monologue - utter amazement and fear.
Amid all the incredible talent and technical achievement on display, it is Dunaway's performance as Diana Christensen that holds the film together. She is the key character. It is Christensen that encourages those above her to move the news division into increasingly sensational fare. She also becomes "emotionally involved" with Schumacher, which is a key narrative element throughout the film. In one of the film's many great lines, Schumacher tells his wife that Christensen "learned life from Bugs Bunny." In many ways, Diana is like a cyborg - a mechanized version of humanity. The sad part is that she is human, she just seems to have lost touch with reality.
Dunaway plays this mechanized coldness perfectly. Lumet has said that he told Dunaway not to show emotion, especially in some tender scenes with Holden. Her reactions in these scenes are incredible. The perfect example is the following interaction between Christensen and Schumacher:
Schumacher: You're dealing with a man that has primal doubts, Diana, and you've got to cope with it. I'm not some guy discussing male menopause on the 'Barbara Walters Show'. I'm the man that you presumably love. I'm part of your life. I live here. I'm real. You can't switch to another station.
Christensen: What exactly is it you want me to do?
There's no emotion in Christensen's response. It's binary. Zeros and ones. Cause and effect. Schumacher puts his entire being out there and all Christensen sees is a programming chart.
Somewhere in all of this, there is some dark comedy. There are parts of the film that really do make me laugh out loud. But what makes this an all-time great film is that it goes deeper into who we are as humans and how we interact with one another. What are the motivations behind our actions? Are they authentic, or corrupt? Is our world made up of a beautiful spectrum of humans worthy of the care and the respect they deserve, or is it as Arthur Jensen puts it? Is the world really a massive business?
Network was certainly no slouch at the 49th Academy Awards. As mentioned before, it won Oscars for Best Actor (Finch), Best Actress (Dunaway), Best Supporting Actress (Straight) and Best Original Screenplay (Chayefsky). However, it certainly could have (and maybe should have) won even more. That particular ceremony was maybe the toughest Best Picture race in Academy Awards history. Rocky ended up winning Best Picture over other classics like Network, Taxi Driver and All the President's Men. In my opinion, Network is the best of those films, with Taxi Driver and All the President's Men close behind. In any case, it's astounding that all those films came out in the same year. They are literally some of the best films ever made.
One reason why I believe Network belongs in the pantheon of great films is that it has a great care for the rules and traditions of quality drama and storytelling. In Aristotle's seminal treatise Poetics, he talks about how an impossible probability is better in dramatic art than an improbable possibility. What this means is that, in Star Wars for example, we accept that the Millennium Falcon's shields would react to laser fire as they do even though that is not realistic given our current technical achievements. It's a fantastical occurrence, but it makes sense given what we know about the Star Wars story. However, we shouldn't accept when, in a film that takes place in a more realistic setting, a character just happens to turn on the television at the exact moment to hear an important plot point on the news. Could that happen? Of course it could. But it is highly unlikely, to the point that it degrades the audience's experience.
What does all that have to do with Network?
Well, in the film's ending, we're given an incredibly ludicrous premise - that the heads of a TV news division would seriously consider assassinating their anchor on-air. However, given what has already gone on in the film, we accept that these characters might reach this point. More than that, we understand that if TV executives were to have a discussion like this in real life, they would talk about it exactly like the characters in the film do. It's casually tossed out like a regular business proposal. Their decision comes down to ratings, look-in audiences, contractual obligations and syndication values. At one point, a character butts in to point out that they are talking about a capital crime. You begin to think that there may in fact be one real human in the room. Then he continues to say that the network can't be implicated, and you realize that they have all been corrupted past the point of no return.
The film's ending works (and incredibly well, I might add) because it follows the rules of dramatic art. This conclusion is born out of the story itself, driven by the intentions of the characters and the obstacles with which they've been faced. It is 100% believable despite the fact that it is incredibly outrageous. The entire film toes this line with deep care, and its success in doing so is the main reason its screenplay is so universally acclaimed.
I'll never know what it was like to see Network for the first time when it came out in 1976. But it's hard for me to imagine that the experience would be more revelatory or encapsulating than the one I've had with the film. I believe that the truly great works of art span time. Our feelings about them may change and add different hues, but their stature only grows as the years go on. Network is one of those films, and it will forever be one that I cherish.
Note on content: There is profane language throughout this film, which may not come as a suprise given that so much of its plot takes place in television newsrooms and back offices. There is violence, including an on-air assassination that is somewhat gory. One character also fires a gun in a meeting with many people around. There is also footage shown of a fictional terrorist bank robbery. In terms of sexual content, an extramarital affair is one of the film's main plot points. In the course of that affair, Schumacher and Christensen are shown in bed together. Though no overt nudity is shown, we do see Christensen's bare back and it is clear that they are engaging in intercourse. In an earlier scene, Christensen was shown in similar fashion as another man attempts to get her to engage in intercourse with him. Her bare back is shown, but she rebuffs his advances because she is too busy watching TV. There is also minor sexual dialogue at other points in the film.