Directed by Sidney Lumet. Written by Paddy Chayefsky. Starring Faye Dunaway (Diana Christensen), William Holden (Max Schumacher), Peter Finch (Howard Beale),Robert Duvall (Frank Hackett).
Bottom line: Brilliant satire about the role of television (and media) in our society today and, despite being from 1976, it is painfully relevant.4/4
Howard Beale (Finch) was, at one point, the leading newscaster for UBS (Union Broadcasting System). After the death of his wife, he became an alcoholic and never completely recovered mentally or emotionally. His ratings dwindled and he was eventually forced to resign. In his next broadcast, he announces his resignation saying, “In two weeks, I will blow my brains out on live TV so tune in!” Not surprisingly, pandemonium ensues. Beale calls his long time friend, UBS news division president Max Schumacher, to give him another chance. Beale wants to apologize and go out gracefully. As soon as he gets on live TV, he rants and raves about the news corporation. They pull him off the air. The zoo of a news program is the headlines for the following day. It is a publicity spike that catches the eye of the head of broadcasting, Diana Christensen (Dunaway).
Christensen is a workaholic whose dream in life is to have a hit show. She sees the marketability of Beale’s eccentric ravings and develops the idea of turning it into a prime time show. She wants to mold Beale into a modern day messiah. He is vocalizing the anger and discontent felt by the average American. To get approval from the show, she meets with Schumacher. The two become “emotionally involved” despite the fact that Schumacher is already married.
The Howard Beale Show is made and it becomes a hit. The very nature of the show, however, Beale’s madness, is a source of anxiety. How will the UBS team keep the public interested? What types of things will Beale say? The executives may control him enough to put him on the air but how could they control what he will say?
Network is a powerful satire about the role of television in our society today. The acting is positively phenomenal. Each of the characters has a personality that creates a fleshed out world. There are no real individual villains or heroes but rather there is a general cast that builds up to a cynical, tragic end. We demonize the overall institution of the network instead of individuals. During a lunch meeting, John Hackett (Duvall), Christensen’s boss, is explaining the idea of the Howard Beale Show to his counterparts. One stands up and objects. He says this goes against all ethics of news reporting. Hackett basically says, that’s very noble and I’ll accept your resignation tomorrow but this network is millions of dollars in debt; we need this so sit down. The man sits down. Hackett isn't to blame, nor is Christensen. They are each cogs in the UBS machine.
Dunaway’s performance as the frigid Christensen is painfully fun to watch. We know she can never really be truly happy outside of her work and that, in the scheme of things, she will never be truly happy. She even tells us this. She has always had trouble in relationships but never in her work. Even though she is partaking in the exploitation of Beale, we kinda feel sorry for her.
Howard Beale becomes an interesting figure by the end of the movie. He is fed up with how society is going. He is “as mad as hell and [he’s] not going to take it anymore.” This sentiment is felt by his audience watching the news broadcast but also the audience in the theater watching the movie. Network is able to use Beale and everyone associated with him, from Hackett to Schumacher, to make the audience question themselves. Even though we might want to criticize the network executives and even the audience of the Howard Beale show, we still want to watch. That is, we too are participating in the exploitation of Howard Beale.
There is just one thing that irked me about Network but I don’t think it warranted taking out a whole half a point: the voice-over. I never like voice-over narration because, can’t the movie just show me instead of telling me? I understand the significance of the ending and I could’ve gathered the clout Beale once had. I don’t need some faceless narrator telling it to me. That said, I don’t think a minute or two of dialog detracts from the experience too much.
I highly recommend you watch this movie because it is so well executed. Just by watching this movie you become involved in its discussion. It isn’t just saying “television is bad”, it is calling us out on the exploitative culture that we, ourselves, help propagate.