By John H. Foote
Perhaps the most acutely aware film of the decade about the future of television, Sidney Lumet’s lacerating film Network foreshadowed what TV has become, which is a series of reality programs. Incredibly, it was predicted thirty years before reality programming took over the major three networks. Written by Academy Award winner Paddy Chayefsky, who was awarded another Academy Award for this script, Network was a giant among films in 1976, a truly great year for American cinema.
The fictitious TV network UBS is at war with the more established networks, ABC, CBS and NBC for ratings each night. They are dead last in the race with no real chance at ever competing with the others.
But then they get a lucky break, and worse, people who are quite willing to exploit a man struggling.
Howard Beale (Peter Finch), the grand old man of network news, the news anchor, has lost his wife to cancer, and is being fired, so he goes on the nightly news, calm and confident, and announces one week from that night, he will blow his brains out live on television. At first no one in the control booth appears to hear him but when they realize what he has said, pandemonium breaks loose. Pulled from the news Howard begs his friend Max Schumacher (William Holden), director of the news division for one more chance, let him say goodbye with grace.
Instead Howard goes on and announces he is not going to kill himself, he was “just sick and tired of the bullshit.” The booth goes crazy, but Max leaves him on, allowing him to curse through the six o’clock news. Though Howard catches hell, Max is expected to resign, the ratings for the news have soared, something completely unexpected.
When Diana (Faye Dunaway) wants the news show, Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall) gives it to her, believing she can turn it into a winner. Max is aware his friend is in the throes of a full scale nervous breakdown, believing he is talking to God, and fights her, but Howard goes back on the air.
After a day wandering around the city in the rain, Howard shows up for work and sans make up goes live. Staring into the camera like a fierce, wounded lion he roars at the audience for being complacent, telling them “you’ve got to say I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” He urges them to get up and go to their windows and yell his words to the heavens and miraculously they do. Ratings go through the roof, UBS is front page news, Howard is a TV star. All as Max watches, disgusted as his friend is exploited.
The affair Max had started with Diana ends, only to be rekindled as her news show grows in reach of the ratings. Howard becomes the mad prophet of the airwaves, supported by one reality show after another. The programs on UBS are an industry joke, but hugely popular which is all that matters.
But then he speaks out against a deal being made which involves the network, and his star is tarnished, his value to the network ends.
A group of executives sit in a board room and literally say, “I guess we could kill him.” And live on TV, Howard Beale is gunned down in front of the rabid studio audience. Just. Like. That. A man is killed, a friend to many of them because his ratings dip and the executives no longer like what he is saying. So they kill him, knowing they can, which is terrifying.
The savagery of the inner politics of television was exposed by the writer, for while no one had ever been killed live on TV, was Lee Harvey Oswald’s killing an accident? We only believe what we see right? As the lights come up on his program, men with weapons fire at Howard, the bullets tear into him with a horrific finality and he falls dead. I bet that got one helluva rating.
Network is both a vicious black comedy while being a nasty satire on business of television. People clearly do not matter, everyone it seems, is expendable. A dangerously mentally ill man is exploited for better ratings, made a media star when he should be in a hospital. I mean Howard thinks he talks to God! And why does God choose him? As the good lord and head of the network tell him, “because you’re on television dummy.”
The performances in the film are flawless led by Faye Dunaway’s ball breaking, emasculating Diana who freely admits to having the sexual appetite of a man. She arouses quickly, must be on top, climaxes equally fast, talks about ratings and television the entire act of sex and cannot wait to get her clothes on and get out of the bed. Diana is as Max calls her “television incarnate”, her entire life is a TV show, she even talks about it as such. It is an electrifying performance, quite brave given the absolute emasculation of men she becomes close too, few actresses would have the courage to take the role.
William Holden was never better as tired old Max Schumacher, the proud Director of News who watches his beloved news division turned into a reality show circus. He knows his affair with Diana cannot last, because she is incapable of love. Max feels horrible that he betrayed and hurt his wife, but knows Diana never gave them a second thought. Max has a conscience, and Diana, does not.
Robert Duvall and Ned Beatty are outstanding in small roles, Beatty as the messiah like owner of the network who roars like God at Beale, while Duvall is his hatchet man, a vile man appropriately named Hackett.
Onscreen for all of six minutes Beatrice Straight brings such unbridled fury to the role of Max’s wife you cannot take your eyes off of her. Told of his affair she glares at him in such anger and pain, we feel her hurt. She rants at him in anger and then in a testament of how much she loves him she says, “I won’t give you up that easily Max.”
Peter Finch in the plum role of Howard Beale is a sensation but let me be clear, it is a supporting role.
It was written as a supporting, but Finch insisted on being treated as the lead. You can hardly blame him, he must have known this was role of his career.
Finch captures all the sadness of a man who watched his wife die and is now losing his job which leads to his breakdown which leads to his stardom and profound popularity. The news is all he has left, without it he has no reason to live. Shaking his magnificent head of hair in disgust, he says what the people want to hear and the people come to him. He rails against the powers that be, the authority holding back the average Joe on the street, not even really knowing why he is doing it, just that he must. The actor is magnificent in the film, his furious rant to the camera is astounding, his eyes blazing, his body playing perfectly to the camera, working himself into such a state, he faints at the end of his tirade. He was never better.
Network was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, half of them in the acting categories. Both Finch and Holden were nominated for Best Actor, while Ned Beatty was up for Best Supporting Actor. Dunaway was nominated for Best Actress and Beatrice Straight was a surprise nominee for Supporting Actress. Given the size of their roles, both Beatty and Straight were absolute shocks on nomination morning. In addition the film was nominated for Best Picture, Best Director for the great Sidney Lumet, Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography and Best Film Editing. On Oscar night the film won four, including three of the five acting awards it was nominated for.
Finch won Best Actor posthumously as he had died of a massive heart attack a month before the awards, while Dunaway trounced the competition as Best Actress. The shock of the entire evening was Straight ascending the stage to accept her award for Best Supporting Actress. Writer Paddy Chayefsky would win his third Oscar for writing, but Lumet and the film lost to the million to one shot Rocky (1976) and its director John G. Avildsen. Rocky upset three of the greatest films ever made, for in addition to Network, the boxing romance bested All the President’s Men and Taxi Driver.
What makes Network so remarkable is the foreshadowing of the future of television. How in the seventies could a writer know that reality based programming would so dominate the airwaves and cable?
Brilliant, troubling and fascinating, this is Sidney Lumet’s greatest film.
One of Canada’s best-known film critics, he spent 10 years on TV as co-host of Reel to Real, and another 10 in education (still writing as a critic) as Director of the Toronto Film School, where he created the curriculum for three programs and taught film history. Film has always been his passion. He has written for magazines such as Toronto Life, Fashion and Hollywood North, been quoted in the Los Angeles and New York Times, as well as the major Toronto dailies. Online he has written for such sites as The Wrap, In Contention, Awards Circuit and The Cinemaholic. His first book Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker, was published in 2010. His second Steven Spielberg: American Film Visionary, a massive volume, has just found a publisher and he’s working on American Film Renaissance – 1967-2018 with Nick Maylor. As a critic, he has had the good fortune to interview directors and stars such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Clint Eastwood, Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Robert Duvall, Emma Stone, Jane Fonda, and countless others. As he quips, “Everyone but Jack Nicholson!”