While I wouldn’t go as far to say that television today as turned into what Paddy Chayefsky was satirizing back in 1976, 'Network' still seems as relevant and topical today as it was yesteryear, which goes to mean that very little has changed in television then as opposed to now.
Network (1976) dir. Sidney Lumet
Starring: William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Peter Finch, Robert Duvall, Beatrice Straight, Ned Beatty
By Alan Bacchus
Sure the landscape of television is near indistinguishable across this 30 year time span, but distilling Chayefsky’s critique of television to its core - the idea of news as ‘entertainment’, driven as much by the dollar and cents as any disposable reality television show - Chayesky is still right on the money.
William Holden plays Max Schumacher, a member of the old guard of journalism, the Edward R. Murrow days, when the value system was based on integrity rather than popularity. That was the 50’s. Now, in the 70’s, Max finds himself near obsolete. His old buddy and news anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch), on the other hand, expresses his fears of obsolescence by suffering a mental breakdown and goes on an unruly improvised rant on national television – you know the line, ‘I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore’.
Ironically instead of firing Beale, the popularity of his speech prompts the fictional UBS network, last in the ratings, to put Beale on the air to host his own political talk show. Under the guidance of ladder-climbing female producer Diane Christensen (Faye Dunaway) the show is a hit, thus pleasing her cutthroat network executive Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall). Complicating matters is the fact that Schumacher, who resents the network for exploiting Beale’s mental deficiencies, has actually fallen in love with Diane and left his wife and children for one last shot at foolhardy passionate romance. But when Beale’s antics turn against the network not only is Max’s new relationship threatened but even the physical well-being of his best friend Beale.
“Network” was a swan song of sorts for Chayefsky, one of the great writers from the Golden Era of Television, tapping into all his insider knowledge of the inner workings of network television with the deeply cynical edge of 70’s cinema. Under the direction of Lumet the executed style and tone fits in well with the so-called paranoia films of the 70’s. ‘Network’, like ‘All the President’s Men’ and’ The Conversation’ is born from a deep distrust of the establishment.
While Finch’s show-offy performance won him an Oscar (posthumously) Lumet’s assembly of supportering actors lend even more gravitas to the drama. Robert Duvall as Hackett brings steely-eyed male aggression, exemplifying, like a guillotine poised to strike at the first sign of weakness, the constant fear which hangs over everyone in the film/tv industry. Even Max’s wife Louise gets only a couple of scenes, but two powerful moments of cathartic anger which won actress Beatrice Straight an Oscar.
The 33-year age difference between Dunaway and Holden would seem mismatched as a romantic pairing, but of course, their difference works perfectly for the story, playing off Holden’s reputation in Hollywood as an aged movie star, a former sex symbol passed his prime and thus susceptible to the advances of the career-minded sexual predator Diane.
While the milieu of the television studio is dramatized with immersive reality there’s a distinct theatricalness to many of the scenes, which, for political and satirical purposes, lift it out of this reality. Faye Dunaway’s bickering with William Holden plays as much as political statement-making as it exposes their emotional conflicts. In these scenes, especially the climactic finale when the lovers break up, Chayevsky’s is at his least restrained putting his thematic metaphors front and centre in the conversation. Max’s comparisons of Diana’s rollercoaster of emotions to the structure of a screenplay shows Chayefsky at his most heavy-handed.
There’s no need to beat around the bush in the final moments though. In the traditional of great satire and also great political cinema Chayefsky leaves his audience with his point taken, however obvious. And its effects miraculously last well into this new millennium.