Screenplay : Paddy Chayefsky
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1976
Stars : Faye Dunaway (Diana Christensen), William Holden (Max Schumacher), Peter Finch (Howard Beale), Robert Duvall (Frank Hackett), Wesley Addy (Nelson Chaney), Ned Beatty (Arthur Jensen), Beatrice Straight (Louise Schumacher)
Like so many of the crazy developments we all experience in real life, "Network" starts with a seemingly unimportant event. A down-and-out news anchor named Howard Beale (Peter Finch), who was once a popular television figure but has since suffered sliding ratings and an increased reliance the bottle, is fired. He is given two weeks before his "resignation," and on the air, he snaps and declares that he intends to commit suicide on television in one week.
The TV station, the fictional Union Broadcasting Corporation (UBS), wants to fire him immediately, but Beale somehow talks them into letting him go on the air once more to apologize. However, instead of apologizing, he drops the script and starts railing against the falsities of the media. He explains his earlier intention to commit public suicide by saying, "I'll tell you what happened: I just ran out of bullshit." He goes on for several minutes about how everything is "bullshit," and it looks like his career is not the only thing going down the tubes--it's his sanity as well.
But guess what happens? Beale's tirade turns into a ratings bonanza, and Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway), the hard-nosed, no-nonsense director of programming is sure that she can turn Beale's lunacy into a hit program. Early in the film, she sums up her entire character in one sentence: "All I want out of life is a 30 share and a 20 rating." According to the script by novelist/screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky (who won an Oscar for his work here) Diana represents everything that is negative and soul-deadening about television. Interested only in ratings and sensationalism, she has fundamentally destroyed her ability to love or feel normal human emotion; to her, everything is sentiment in an on-going script of life.
Max Schumacher (William Holden), head of the UBS news division and Beale's best friend, is against the idea of using Beale for ratings. Max is not only concerned about the dwindling reliability of the mass media in the eyes of the public, but he is convinced that Beale is crazy and should be treated, not exploited. For his efforts, Max is fired by Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall), the "hatchet man" of CAA, the multinational conglomerate that recently bought UBS. Max is the hero of the story because he puts principles above ratings and, unlike almost every other character in the film, he can feel. Chayefsky constantly hammers away at the theme of soullessness in "Network"; how much you attribute the decline of modern culture to the rise of the television industry will dictate much of your reaction to "Network" as either brilliant social commentary or, as Pauline Kael described it, a lot of "hot air."
"Network" is essentially a good idea--or, rather, a lot of good ideas--that get too jumbled together. The movie is well-acted by its impressive ensemble cast (they won three of the four acting Oscars for 1976) and well-directed by Sidney Lumet, but Chayefsky's script never allows the film to quite come together. If too many cooks spoil the broth, then too many ideas--none of which are fully developed on their own--eventually spoil "Network." This is not to say it is a failure of a movie. In fact, it stands head and shoulders above the majority of films you are likely to find on the shelves at your local video store. Nevertheless, it still comes across as a bit disappointing because it has the feel of something that could have been better. With a slightly less overloaded agenda and some tightening of the script, "Network" could have been stunning. As is, it's a diamond in the rough, in need of some simple polishing.
Take, for instance, the relationship between Max and Diana. They are adversaries at work because Diana's single-minded desire to make Howard Beale into a successful TV show is one of the prime factors that gets Max fired. However, Max develops an "infatuation" with her, even though he knows she is incapable of true love or commitment. Max leaves his long-suffering wife (Beatrice Strait), who manages to get in one long monologue about Max's "last roar of passion" that leaves her in the dust. It's a good speech, but it sounds too much like a speech, nothing more than one of Beale's long-winded TV rages. And, after all that, the relationship between Max and Diana is never developed to a satisfying degree. When it finally turns sour, it seems like only one more excuse for Max to expound upon Diana's "soullessness" as a result of her being "television incarnate--indifferent to suffering, insensitive to joy."
If anything, "Network" feels like a precursor to popular modern media ranters like Dennis Miller and Dennis Leary. Much of the movie is composed of scenes where various characters yell and scream their personal ideologies, including Max's speech about the importance of being able to feel pain, Diana's talking about her shows' ratings while making love, and Arthur Jensen (Ned Beatty), the head of CAA, going on about how there are no more nations and cultures, only "one holistic system of systems; one vast, interwoven, interacting, multivaried, multinational dominion of dollars!"
As ludicrous as most of the events are in "Network," and the fact that it culminates in literal murder for ratings, none of it is particularly hard to believe, especially in today's climate of MTV and "The Jerry Springer Show." When "Network" was made, TV was at the start of its major downward slide. The era of squeaky-clean fifties shows like "Leave It To Beaver" had been replaced with biting social satire like "All in the Family." Television had already been contaminated by bringing the grisly war in Vietnam into the family living room and witnessing a Florida news anchor named Chris Chubbock shooting herself in the head during a live broadcast in July of 1974.
Chayefsky attributes the horrors on television to television itself, although some would argue that the tube simply reflects what's already out there in society. They would say that a grotesque incidence like Chris Chubbock killing herself before a live audience was not a result of television; she simply used television for her own demented purposes. The same could be said for Beale. Either way you look at it, TV (along with movies, books, music, etc.) is a powerful force that should never be taken for granted.
About that, "Network" has a great deal of important points to make. Some of them come across loud and clear, others gets somewhat muddled, and still others are completely lost. However, the movie is so replete with ideology that if some of it gets lost, there's plenty else coming at you a mile a minute to keep your brain occupied. It's ironic today to watch Beale screaming to his audience, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore" because, although people may still be mad as hell, they still seem to be taking it just fine.
©1998 James Kendrick