“We’re in the boredom killing business. We deal in illusions.”
Network, the 1976 drama directed by Sidney Lumet, deals with the business of television, and it does so magnificently. Fantastic performances abound in this prophetic tale of the future of television and the world as a whole.
Howard Beale (Peter Finch) is a well-respected news anchor at UBS, a major television network; however, he is fired because of his low ratings. While announcing his “retirement” on-air, Beale loses his mind and announces that he’s going to kill himself on his last broadcast in two weeks. The network will be able “to get a hell of a rating out of that. 50 share, easy.” His morbid comments go unnoticed by the studio crew, save for two employees. When Beale is given the opportunity to apologize for his behavior, he states to the American public that his actions were a result of him running “out of bullshit.” Even though the older network executives want to fire Beale, Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway), the young director of programming, senses a chance to boost UBS ratings. What follows is a ridiculous variety show capitalizing on unstable Beale and his rants about the media.
Network received a record three Oscar wins in the acting category, not to mention five acting nominations altogether. Sidney Lumet‘s smart direction made what could easily be over-the-top acting fit perfectly into this film. Lumet captures the intensity and fast-pace of the television world excellently. There are constantly multiple sources of sound, from people talking to the sound of a newscast, all battling for the viewer’s attention in a scene. This theatrical nature rightfully spilled over into the acting. Faye Dunaway is outstanding as the ratings-obsessed, cutthroat, unfeeling, and slightly insane Diana. In one scene when she’s pitching her show idea, the energy radiates from her as she runs out of breath in her excitement. Peter Finch appears to be a practiced Evangelical preacher as he delivers his diatribes with zeal and fervor, tainted by madness.
“There is no America. There is no democracy. There is only IBM, and ITT, and AT&T, and DuPont, Dow, Union Carbide, and Exxon. Those are the nations of the world today.”
However, the two most surprising performances come from supporting actors with less than 20 minutes of screen time. Ned Beatty received a Best Supporting Actor nod for his role as Arthur Jensen, the CEO of CCA, a corporation that has recently taken control of UBS network. He delivers a striking monologue, speaking of a world, not unlike the global society we live in today, where there are no nations, only corporations. Beatrice Straight, in her Oscar-winning portrayal, is Louise Schumacher, wife of UBS executive and Howard Beale’s close friend Max Schumacher. Straight only speaks one line in a prior scene, before delivering a compelling speech later in the film. I felt her pain and outrage as she expresses her frustration to her cheating husband in this heart wrenching scene.
“We’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take this anymore!”
These incredible performances, and the excellence of Network as a whole, is due in large part to Paddy Chayefsky‘s razor-sharp and memorable script. I was in awe of how true his commentary on the media rings today. Diana is initially regarded as crazy for wanting to produce news shows, including a team of writers, like fictional T.V. dramas; today this is common practice. Television is a mainstay of American culture, but people fail to realize that T.V. is also business. News is constantly sensationalized to get higher ratings and line advertisers pockets. Americans are all to quick to believe what they see on television, when in reality everything can just as easily be a lie (as the movie Wag the Dog excellently shows us).
For the most part Chayefsky does a great job of making his point about the falsity of the media in an unpretentious manner. However, he seemed to drive the point too far with the relationship between Max (William Holden) and Diana. I didn’t really understand why Diana continued her relationship with Max, who was much older than her, especially since she succeeded in taking control of the Howard Beale Show. It felt too symbolic and preachy about the poor T.V. generation who are robots, heartless like the television that raised them.
Nevertheless, the satirical ending of Network gives the viewer a lot to think about. It may seem a bit ridiculous at first, but it does make me question what networks will do next to boost their ratings.