By 1976, television had already gained momentum as a cultural hurricane, churning and demolishing everything in its path. No film predicted the tack that storm would take better than Network. Audiences who once laughed with nervous energy at the lunacy of blood-soaked infotainment now cringe that its satirical apocalypse has been fully realized. Frothing pundits now command the airwaves, spouting pedantic demagoguery that makes Howard Beale sound Shakespearean by comparison. Grotesque cycles of 24-hour news batter us with relentless fury, until we can only stand in the sloshing wreckage and wait for the next onslaught. Every rewatching of Network makes one thing certain: We had plenty of advance warning.
The story centers on Howard Beale (Peter Finch), a shambling sheepdog of a man who anchors a fourth-place network news show. Howard is fired in the film’s opening scenes, an act that takes away everything he has, but also gives him nothing to lose. Boozy and broken, Howard hijacks the following broadcast to announce his plans to commit on-air suicide. He predicts a massive audience, and he’s absolutely right: Millions of people, frightened and curious, tune in for Howard’s profanity-laden diatribe. The network, sensing a hit, keeps him on the air and encourages him to “articulate the popular rage.”
A carnival atmosphere springs up around Howard, and we see several characters with disparate enthusiasm for living within its cacophony: Max (William Holden) is the news director, and Howard’s best friend. Frank (Robert Duvall) serves as a corporate hatchet man and the serpentine influence who guides Howard along the path of certain destruction. Diana (Faye Dunaway), the icy new programming director, approaches her mandate to put the network in the black with a Machiavellian ferocity.
Of these characters, Max shows the deepest emotional and ethical conflict: He’s torn between a growing concern for Howard’s obvious breakdown and an almost primal fascination with Diana’s redoubtable ruthlessness. As the movie’s moral center, Max attempts to simultaneously save Howard and sate his rusty sense of lust, and he fails on both fronts.
Network is a shimmering showcase of stars, but none shine brighter than screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky. His brilliant, boiling dialogue rolls through the movie like lava, searing each scene with its dramatic intensity. It’s refreshing to see a movie unafraid to give us characters who can speak with such passion and intelligence. Director Sidney Lumet, already known for his restraint, wisely lets Chayefsky’s script take first chair.
If Chayefsky’s dialogue is like a well-seasoned steak from Morton’s, then it’s no surprise that this cast of Oscar-winners chow down on it. Two big monologues have earned their place in cinema lore: Howard’s wild onscreen jeremiad in which he pleads with viewers to go outside and vent their frustrations to the sky: “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” Finch’s face quivers maniacally and he raises his hands to the air, like a batshit street preacher. The other moment occurs when Ned Beatty shows up as a tycoon who attempts to set Howard straight about how his rants are affecting the flow of currency: “The world is a business, Mr. Beale. It has been since man crawled out of the slime.” It’s an expansive tirade that has a strange, musical poetry to it. Beatty has had some big scenes in some big movies, but this might be his best work ever. In fact, every performance here is a master class in acting.
Famed director Howard Hawks once observed that a good movie should have three good scenes and no bad scenes. Network has at least ten really good scenes and zero bad scenes. There’s not one false moment, nor one syllable of dialogue that feels out of place. Every bit of satire lands exactly where it’s supposed to, and the movie maintains its dour worldview all the way to the memorable closing shot. I have a short list of absolutely perfect movies, and this is one of them. Network is a story both of and beyond its time. It looked ahead and saw that we would maintain our love affair with television, right up to the moment it leveled us to the ground.
121 min. R.