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Genre: Drama Comedy
Directed By: Sidney Lumet (Serpico • Dog Day Afternoon)
Overview: Following the executives of a failing television network as they find a ratings goldmine in one of their crazed anchormen.
There’s a pleasure one gets from finding a polished hidden gem in an obscure sleeper film you’ve unearthed, then there’s the pleasure that comes from finally getting around to something you’ve known you should have wrapped your little eyeballs around years ago. As it was with my recent viewing of Crumb, so too was I completely wowed by Sidney Lumet’s Network. So too should you all get on with cramming this one inside your brain.
Network is the story of UBS, the lowest ranking television network of the big four. We follow the mostly professional lives of those with the power to make change. We begin with Howard Beale (Peter Finch), popular network news anchor, who has just been given his two-weeks’ notice for not being popular enough. The next day on live television Howard declares that he’ll be committing suicide on the air “a week from today. So tune in next Tuesday. That should give the public relations people a week to promote the show. You ought to get a hell of a rating out of that.” He’s instantly fired but given a last chance to make one final goodbye speech. That speech quickly goes off the rails into ad-lib, but rather than shutting him down, the disgruntled head of the News Division, Max Schumacher (William Holden), lets Beale keep ranting, calling bullshit on himself, the whole world and even the otherworldly. Ratings skyrocket. Beale’s going crazy but he’s crazy popular. Meanwhile, the pet project of the ambitious head of programming, Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway), is to create a documentary news show around the Ecumenical Liberation Army terrorist organization. They would commit crimes, film them, then give the network exclusive rights to broadcast them. After seeing Beale go nuts on live TV, she wants to spin his lunacy into the best show on television. She’s planning a whole new lineup and wants to include Beale’s mad prophet on the mountain rants. Amidst all this we also follow the network head Frank Hackett (played exceptionally well by Robert Duvall with barely contained rage and hell-borne professional-mindedness), as he is torn between making the network better for the shareholders and doing what the head of the CCA conglomerate that owns the UBS network wants.
I could go on setting up all the little plot points – a whole hell of a lot more than that happens - but Network’s complex, deftly intelligent, and windingly-witty plot is what makes it so fantastic, strong and slimy-slick enough to ensure a repeat viewing. But it doesn’t overwhelm. The endless omnipresent pressures are evident, but Network hovers them over us like a cloud, rather than bogging us down with specifics. Everyone answers to a higher power, and we the audience understand it all in vague terms, in numbers lingo repeated like a mantra: Share… Ratings… Share… Ratings…
Ned Beatty delivers the best, most pupil-dilating speech of the whole film as Arthur Jensen, top brass of the CCA conglomerate that owns the UBS network. William Holden is incredible as Max Schumacher, the most human of our characters, the one who actually considers the health and decency of the people under him. Faye Dunaway is a delicious blonde vamp, an excitable dog-eat-dog type who gets more excited about television and ratings than anything else, including sex – unless of course, she’s talking about ratings while having sex – which is a scene almost as incredible as the hilarious contract negotiation scene with the radical Communist terrorist group.
After watching Network, I realized how outrageous and wild it all seemed, but while listening to the characters, it all made perfect sense, it all seemed obvious and logical, and that’s what makes Network memorable. Its’ madness is infectious. None of UBS’ characters are so out there that they’re caricatures, they’re all justifiable, and that what makes it so deliciously frightening. There are so many moments of dark comedy that to bill this film exclusively as a Drama (as IMDb has done) would be terrifying. You gotta laugh, so as not to weep. Network is funny, but most of all it’s smart, with a script so polished that it shines. It’s a must-see, and not only because it won four Oscars for Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress and Best Screenplay, but because is rings all too true – Hell, it’s 1974’s chilling prediction of Fox News.
Performance: 9 Cinematography: 8 Script: 10 Plot: 9 Mood: 9
Overall Rating: 90% (You’ll Easily Get Caught In Its Web)
I don’t like having a movie collection. I find it to be a detriment to the film-trotting experience. By having a hoard of films staring back at me from my shelves every day, I find myself feeling the need to watch the things I own. It’s liberating for me to move a DVD from the “watch me once” shelf to the “sell me” pile. Network gets to be a two-percenter: a movie that stays on my shelf as an object of pride that I will return to once again.
Yes, Network is a film that a snob can have in his collection and be proud of not having to defend.