April 20, 2011

Movies Revisited: Network (1976)

A younger cousin of mine came to visit this week. When I mentioned Network, he was puzzled.

"An Oscar winning film from the 70s." I said.

"It won an Oscar, must be good." my cousin replied.

So he didn't know the 1976 satire, directed by the late, great Sidney Lumet who passed away last week. I wasn't surprised. (My cousin also had trouble remembering Total Request Live. I must be getting old.)

Network is about a fictional broadcasting company, UBS, that is dead last in the ratings. When head news anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch) is told that he is being let go, over drinks with his longtime friend and news president Max Schumacher (William Holden), he decides to take matters into his own hands.

While live on the air, Beale announces that he will commit suicide. Immediately the network fires him. Howard pleads to Max to have one more stint on-camera to apologize to his viewers before signing off. Max gives him the opportunity, but Howard uses the airtime instead to go on another rant, saying life is "bull shit."

Ratings soar! Mr. Beale is a hit. Soon Diana Christenson (Faye Dunaway), the head of programming and Max's new love interest, steps in and proposes that they make Beale the host of his own show, right behind the entertainment slot.

"The Howard Beale Show, and starring the mad prophet of the airwaves, Howard Beal!"

Buy Network on Amazon.
Download Network on iTunes.
The show goes to number one. Max is fired as news president. He continues his affair with Diana but soon discovers the error of his ways. Diana is a heartless woman, who's only out for TV ratings, no matter what the cost. And Howard's lunatic rants become a tad too expository, pitting Diana and the network executives against CCA boss Arthur Jensen (Ned Beautty). CCA, the conglomerate that owns UBS, is in cahoots with a Saudi Arabian conglomerate. Eventually, the only solution for the network in this "mad as hell" world is to have Howard Beale assassinated live on television, providing a perfect exclamation point to this wildly invigorating satire.

Network was a critical hit in its initial release, earning ten Oscar nominations and four wins including Best Original Screenplay for Paddy Chayefsky. Lumet lost out Best Director to John Avildsen for Rocky.

Rarely does a screenplay come along that burns with this kind of fiery energy. Chayefsky's dialogue is superb, biting and lightning quick. Yes, there are many lofty topics thrown around; but they are managed so well that it never seems over-the-top. Which is strange to say, considering Network is a satire.

What made Lumet such a great director was his understanding for the written word. He started out as an actor; he understood the inherent value in a well-thought-out story. He lets his actors soar with the material. And he shoots the inner-workings of a TV station like you're actually there, in the belly of the beast. It works like a charm.

In today's climate, where everyone in the news preys on Charlie Sheen's every raving sentiment, it's no surprise to find Network's otherworldly premise as topical as ever. Check it out when you get the chance. It is a fine example of Lumet's subtly mesmerizing work. And it remains timely commentary on our media driven culture.

Plus, it won a few Oscars, so it must be good.

Enjoy the trailer:



Check out more of Sidney Lumet's prolific work on MRQE.com.

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