Ah, the American public, always easy pickings for a roasting. Movies have done it left and right, like Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole, and why not? As an enormous power in terms of what we'll watch, won't watch, what we'll pay to see, the public is as fickle as the weather. And to be fair, it's just not the U.S. So who has to decide what we watch, read and experience in terms of movies, TV shows, books, magazines, anything really. So goes 1976's Network, a not so subtle dig at the decline of television and news journalism into pandering for whatever audiences want.
Like any movie dealing with a timely issue, it's important to look at that time it's made in. Network was released in the mid 1970s after the U.S. had left Vietnam and just a few years removed from the Watergate scandal. There were issues to say the least, especially in the minds of the American people. So Network comes along with director Sidney Lumet presenting a cynical, very dark look at TV and the business it truly is to make money and be successful. Studio execs will do ANYTHING if the ratings are good, even to the point of taking a life.
After working for the UBS broadcasting station for many years, news anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch) is being let go. Howard's wife has left him and his job was really all he had so on-air he tells his viewers that on a show a week away he is going to kill himself...on air for millions of people to see. Instantly, the ratings shoot up, and the network has a hit on their hands. They can't possibly take him off the air, instead giving Beale a stage to rant and rave about whatever suits him. The network's programming director, Diane Christensen (Faye Dunaway), plays it up, making it such a hit that almost half of the country is watching Beale's new show. All the while, Beale's close friend and boss, Max Schumacher (William Holden), wonders what's happened to the business he grew up with, and if there's any way to get back to the good old days.
That's basically the story in a nutshell, and I don't want to tell too much more because it will take away from the appeal of the movie, especially the last half hour. As presented, the UBS network is fourth in the ratings behind CBS, NBC, and ABC so working with a fictional channel, Lumet pulls out all the stops in portraying a cutthroat, profit above all else company. Dunaway's Diane is all business, all the time and can't carry on a personal life, Holden's Max is fighting to hold on to the last traces of a business that used to be, and Finch's Beale runs with the plan presented to him, preaching to his audiences nightly.
This movie had Oscars written all over it, getting 10 nominations and winning four. And while it's hard to dispute the movie didn't deserve them, I felt like I was watching something surreal, something completely over the top as the story unfolded, especially in the ending. Lumet was going for a satire of the TV industry, and it works -- the networks are skewered over an open fire -- but at times it's too much. Am I supposed to laugh or chuckle at what's going on, or be alarmed at what we're seeing? Probably a little of both, but the turns and twists just felt like too much to me.
What I won't argue with is the phenomenal casting, especially the three leads already mentioned and then throw in Robert Duvall for good measure. Finch was the first actor to be given a posthumous Oscar for his win in Best Actor. I personally would have given it to Holden (who was also nominated), but Finch is at a scenery-chewing, scene-stealing best as Howard Beale, an overnight ratings sensation. Most of his role requires him to deliver long, raving speeches -- and his "I'm as mad as hell" speech is top notch -- and he's presented both as a tragic figure and a bit of a stooge. Holden on the other hand, is much more subdued but equally effective as Max. His scene where he SPOILERS breaks up with Diane earns him the Oscar for me. Dunaway fully deserved her Oscar for Best Actress and is quickly becoming one of my favorite actresses.
Did I like Network? Yes, parts of it I loved. But as cynical as I can be in viewing and reviewing movies at times, I wish this was a little less cynical, maybe a little more subtle in its execution. Ned Beatty has a speech late in the movie that is rightfully impressive but I feel like I've heard it before. Maybe I shouldn't fault Network because other movies since 1976 have dealt with similar subjects, but it's hard not to. I completely recommend this movie to anyone who hasn't seen it for the performances alone, but I was a little disappointed with it. Thought provoking? Sure, but not a classic in my mind.
Network <----trailer (1976): ** 1/2 /****