Viewing Network for the AFI Project
From October 11, 2009:
What's the AFI Project, you ask? For more information, or if you just enjoy my bemused ramblings, read here:http://www.spout.com/blogs/pippin06/archive/2008/3/1/25756.aspx
Network is on the following AFI lists:
The Original Top 100 (#66)
100 Movie Quotes (#19 - Howard Beale: "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!")
The Revised Top 100 (#64)
Network, instantly viewed on Netflix, is one of those films that I've always vaguely heard about but never paid much attention to until reviewing the films for this project. When I read the premise and prior reviews, I was greatly intrigued but otherwise had no preconceived notions. I'll leave it at that until after offering the obligatory plot summary.
Network is a wily satire of the machinations of television. The term floated in the film is "trash TV," though the film easily makes the argument that all television is trash. For the purposes of the film and its plot, though, trash TV seems to refer to exploitative, sensationalist programming, an early wash of the genre known as "reality TV." Howard Beale (Peter Finch) is forced out of his long-standing position as veteran newsanchor at fictional network United Broadcasting Systems because the ratings show that he "skews old." Network executive and Howard's best friend, Max Schumacher (William Holden), delivers the news, but Howard can't bear the thought of losing his job for any reason, much less his age, so in his next broadcast, he announces to his viewers and, essentially, the nation that he is going to commit suicide on his final program. Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall), the corporate executive in charge of the Network, wants to oust Howard before his remaining two weeks have expired, but Programming Executive Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) sees an opportunity in Howard. Ambitious, driven, and in charge of bringing cutting edge programming to the network, and in lieu of all of the ensuing news and interest becoming a ratings gold mine in the wake of Howard's announcement, she convinces Frank to let Howard onto his final broadcast as a special event, with cameras poised to film whatever grisly end Howard brings to himself. Howard, on the other hand, who has begun to crack under the circus that began with his termination, fails to commit suicide; instead, he embarks upon a rambling, raving rant about the state of the world and of television and encourages the viewers to go to their windows and shout as loud as they can: "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore!" When people actually listen to this encouragement, Howard becomes the hottest thing on TV, and Diana becomes the Network's new "it" girl. Howard gets his own news program, where he can rant and rave to his content while bolstered with interesting segments, such as a psychic's predictions. Diana also bills Howard as the "the Mad Prophet of the Airwaves," and Max watches all of this in horror and disgust, even as he finds himself drawn into an adulterous affair with Diana. Though he is equal parts fascinated and horrified, Max temporarily leaves his wife (Beatrice Straight) for Diana, only to return to her when he realizes that Diana is television in human form. At the same time, the network owner (Ned Beatty), who admits that he relates to Howard in only the craziest of ways, convinces Howard to preach a "You can't win, so why try?" philosophy that causes the ratings roller coaster to coast down hill. Thus, the network must decide how to deal with Howard's declining trend and cut their losses, despite their investment into this new kind of programming.
That's quite a bit of plot summary, and I relied on the Spout page more than usual in my attempts to coax from memory everything that happened in Network, but truth be told, Network is a cynical, ascerbic, and visionary film that is complex in its many layers. It's all satire--barbed, pointed, sharp, and merciless--but there are so many different edges to the satire, Network almost loses track of where the barbs are aimed, and, in some ways, the film, as brilliant as it is, fails to obtain that masterpiece status because the sly bullets are being shot in six different directions at times when maybe only three or four bullets should have been shot at the same target.
The screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky is about as brilliantly written as any great screen story, and the film's focus on the Network's inner cogs was when the film was at its tightest and strongest. The fact that the film took aim at sensationalist programming, which has only become more prevalent in the 21st century, makes the film more prophetic than even the filmmakers probably knew in 1976. All of the little jokes, from sly comments made by the executives to the visual gags, to the poignant conclusion of the film, serve to take well-deserved knocks at the television industry and contempoary news broadcasts, otherwise known as the "media," and there are times when the film is laugh-out-loud funny because of the sheer irony of what is being targeted and how it is being portrayed. There are also times when the giggles arise from the squirm factor, as the film clearly broaches the line and stretches it without ever crossing it (at least - until the end, which I refuse to spoil under any circumstances).
Yet, the film lost me when it veered into the Max and Diana tryst, for several reasons. It bothered me that the only "evil" executive being given a full character wash was the only female of the bunch, the "Eve" shall we say, and the conclusion made by the Max character was that she was essentially nothing but a (five-letter word), myopically focused on her career and the ratings that define it. It also bothered me that the Max character was clearly meant to be the voice of morality and ethics, even in a reactionary way, but that he did this after making a knowingly immoral choice. It bothered me that the implication here was that Diana's character seemed to be symbolic of the alleged influence that television has on society and society has on television, and the neverending cycle it perpetuates, or so the filmmakers would have the film's viewers believe. In basic terms, the implication is that Diana is TV and Max is society, and he strays from his wife amidst the pixellated glow of excitement that Diana seems able to offer him, only to have Max realize in the end that she is two-dimensional and, therefore, not real or, further, not everything she is cracked up to be. The whole story seemed distracting to the overall satire, lacked both the comedic and dramatic punch that the rest of the film provided, and struck me as inherently sexist. I didn't even have to overanalyze the film to arrive at these visceral and instantaneous reactions.
Also, the performances were a bit of a mixed bag. Finch and Holden could not have been finer. Finch had to play a stark-raving lunatic with some semblance of relatability to a public hungry for someone or something to love, at least for the moment, and he deserved his posthumous Oscar (he passed away just before the film was released and was the only actor to have this distinction, until Heath Ledger's death in 2008). Holden had to play the only quiet, understated character in the entire piece, the voice of the "every man," and he did so with grace and believability. It was a bit odd seeing him so old too, since I've seen a great deal of his films from his heydey (he was the guy in Sunset Boulevard, Stalag 17, Sabrina, and others, to name a few).
Faye Dunaway gave a great performance, and her trademark theatrics served this character well. She was depicted to be the most unlikeable of the bunch, and yet, she gave the character some charm and occasional emotion making her more three-dimensional, at least at the outset, than she was allowed to be in the end.
Still, other performances left something to be desired. Many of the characters shouted everything, bringing new definition to the phrase "on the air." Why Duvall and Frank Hackett had to yell everything under the sun was beyond me - I guess because all executives are blow-hards who cannot seem to control the volume of their own voice. Most of the supporting characters, such as the people in the recording room, were a bit ham-fisted and forced. There seemed to be many loose threads in all of the different scenarios that were not completely sewn together by director Sidney Lumet.
Still, to say the film was ahead of its time would be an understatement. If the film had focused entirely on the progression of Beale without taking the side trip into Max and Diana's particular love affair, I probably would have loved it. I may even have thought it was the greatest thing since sliced bread, or at least since Star Wars (that I've seen - remember, in the order that I've seen them). Since their tryst had little effect on the overall story other than to provide a deeper, slightly esoteric commentary on television as a whole in comparison to the chides hurled by the rest of the picture at a certain type of programming, I feel justified in rating the film a 7.5 on the patented ratings scale, between minor flaws/very good and shaky/entertaining, since the flaws I described seem to me to be more than minor even as the film was still very entertaining. As to the test, Network does not pass, owing in large part to this offshoot of the storytelling. I was kind of offended by it, truly, even as the rest of the film and all of its ingredients (right down to the clever insertions of "television" music that served to be the only scoring of the film) struck me as brilliantly constructed bits of foreshadowing to what would become true eventualities. In any event, Network is nothing short of in-your-face and is recommendable as long as the potential viewer remembers that nothing in the television world is safe from this picture (nor are some elements from outside that world).