“Network” is a film that I have probably seen if you piece together all of the portions I’ve watched over time. But it qualified as a Blind Spot because I had never sat down and watched it through. I never could put a finger on what kept me from investing the time to watch a film that many categorize as truly great. Upon watching it in its entirety, I was reminded what first drew me to the movie as well as what pushed me away.
For me “Network” is a mixed bag that is hard a narrow down or label. To call it messy would be an understatement, but there is a reason and motivation behind its messiness. “Network” seeks to push every button it can reach. It strives to be a full-blown outrageous satire, an insightful look behind the scenes, and a sermon on nearly every social or political concern of 1976. Director Sidney Lumet and writer Paddy Chayefsky never allow their film to be pigeonholed but at the same time its constant shifts in tone and voice, specifically in the second half, do more to distract than enlighten.
The film begins by painting itself as a behind-the-scenes expose on a struggling television network. UBS makes the decision to fire their longtime evening news anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch) after a steady ratings decline. During one of his final broadcasts Beale threatens to kill himself on live television (an idea inspired by Christine Chubbuck’s on-air suicide in 1974). This infuriates the network heads who have him removed immediately.
Beale’s best friend and news division boss Max Schumacher (William Holden) allows him to appear one more time in order to bow out with dignity. Beale uses the opportunity to go on a mad rant which again angers his bosses but spikes the network ratings. Programming director and ruthless ratings hawk Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) convinces her boss Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall) to exploit Beale’s obvious mental breakdown much to Max’s disapproval.
But “Network” then shoots off into a number of unusual directions including an ill-fated romance between Diana and Max. Diana is incapable of loving anything other than television ratings while Max flippantly and emotionlessly leaves his wife of 25 years Louise (earnestly played by Beatrice Straight who won an Oscar for her whopping 5 minutes of screen time). It is a weird side road that only plays out in spurts. There is a compelling current in each of their scenes yet we are never allowed the time to fully understand the relationship.
The film also branches off into a Patty Hearst-like side story complete with an urban leftist militant group directly patterned after the Symbionese Liberation Army. These scenes start off strong but intentionally grow more absurd. These things all clash together before culminating in an ending which is completely off the rails. Again, none of this is by accident. Lumet and Chayefsky have so much to say, so much to explore, and so many indictments. Some of it is chilling and prophetic while some gets lost in the melange of loud rants and pointed lectures. But somehow it is always compelling.
“Network” was a huge success in 1976 and was widely applauded by critics. It won a total of four Oscars (for Dunaway, Finch, Straight, and Chayefsky) and was nominated for six more. It is a film that does so many interesting things and it subverts nearly any expectation the audience may have going in. Yet despite its irreverent ambitions it is messy to a fault. The clashing between seriousness and satire is jolting and not always in an entertaining way. I also don’t think the film lives up to its own lofty feelings of self-importance. It ends up being an engaging but frustrating road full of many ups and some disappointing downs.
VERDICT – 3 STARS