Films can be memorable for all sorts of reasons; brilliant direction, committed acting, breathtaking action. Network, an inspired combination between Sidney Lumet and Paddy Chayefsky, is a surprisingly rare example of a film distinguished by a genuinely brilliant screenplay. It's not a remotely restrained work and is, in some ways, pretty scrappy, but every scene resonates with the vision of an original writing talent given the chance to hold centre stage for a couple of hours. Chayefsky may frustrate or even outrage the viewer, but he is always stimulating and, even when his preaching gets out of hand, never remotely boring.
The movie was made in 1976 and is set in what was then the near-future. At the beginning of the film, Howard Beale (Finch), veteran newscaster for UBS - a fictional major broadcasting network - whose ratings and popularity have been slipping, announces that he will be leaving in a week's time, and that, to mark the event, he will blow his brains out on screen. This causes a huge furore amongst the executives, and Beale is forced to retract his comments on the next day's news. However, his explanation of actions - that "I just ran out of bullshit, that's all" - proves popular amongst a public unused to hearing such honesty from their television screens, and rising executive Diana Christenson (Dunaway) sees a chance to exploit the situation. She has been working on increasingly violent and extreme shows to catch the jaded audiences, much to the alarm of failing news boss Max Schumacher (Holden). Meanwhile, Beale is becoming mentally unbalanced and in a fit of madness which proves his greatest success, he invades the TV studios to rant against the establishment - resulting in the celebrated scene where he exhorts the people of America to open their windows and scream "I'm mad as Hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore."
What Beale is railing against is the gradual decay of commitment and morality in the media, something represented in the film by Diana, who will do anything to come out top in the TV ratings. But it's also represented by the ageing Max, who embarks on a destructive affair with the ice-maiden Diana, and by the up and coming man of the moment in the TV company, Frank Hackett - played by a very loud Robert Duvall - who is prepared to accept anything which will advance his career. Frank and Diana, immoral leeches, latch onto Beale's popularity and give him his own show where he will scream against anything and everything. However, things become complicated when he launches an attack on the profits made by his own TV network, and it becomes clear that he is becoming a dangerous force for change.
This plot is relatively simple and perhaps a little schematic. But what makes it fascinating is that Chayefsky managed to successfully forecast the way TV would be going in the future. Many of the things this film warns us against - the tabloidisation of news, the surrender of culture to the market, profiteering on real pain and suffering, the turning of objective news into subjective comment - have come to pass. Frequently, Chayefsky exaggerates for comic effect but even then he keeps an edge which makes him more than simply a humorous writer. The best example is the Simbianese Liberation Army which is all too believable as a collective of pseudo-Marxists more concerned about their residuals than their revolutionary principles when Diana offers them a reality-TV show of their own called "The Mao-Tse-Tung Hour". Throughout the film, his screenplay is on the edge between satire and simply overstated reality and it's a tightrope that he walks brilliantly (as he did in 1971's The Hospital, a film which is in urgent need of rediscovery). Chayefsky also writes fantastic dialogue, nowhere better than in a series of virtual monologues which the actors lap up with relish. There are four key ones - Howard's rant during the rainstorm, Max's wife as she explodes with bitterness at her thoughtlessly adulterous husband, the head of UBS's parent company (Ned Beatty) explaining the way of capitalism to Howard, and my favourite, Max's merciless deconstruction of Diana when she finally decides to call a halt to their affair. In these speeches, Chayefsky captures the middle ground between cinema and theatre and he is, for a brief moment or two, a genuinely great American writer. There's no better speech for a middle aged character facing the truth about his life than this from Max; "War, murder, death -- all the same to you as bottles of beer, and the daily business of life is a corrupt comedy. You even shatter the sensation of time and space into split seconds, instant replays. You're madness, Diana. Virile madness, and everything you touch dies with you. But not me. Not as long as I can feel pleasure and pain... and love. "
As is so necessary to the film 'working' - i.e. cohering and resolving rather than falling to pieces - the acting is magnificent. Peter Finch, in his last performance, is memorable as Beale, managing an accent with aplomb and becoming both touching and rather frightening when he gets on a roll. However, and despite his sentimental Oscar win, he is overshadowed by two incredible performances from the Americans. Faye Dunaway, deservedly winning the Best Actress Oscar, is the archetypal ice-maiden as Diana, a woman who doesn't understand anything except her own ambition. Much more so than in the clichéd 'working women' movies of a decade later, this character demonstrates the perils of allowing the career ladder precedence over everything else in life. She has power, money and sex, but she doesn't have, and will never have, love. If it's a slightly misogynistic concept (and Chayefsky was never what you would describe as a feminist) then Dunaway redeems it by playing it with such force and anger. She's exciting to watch, whether verbally destroying an enemy or getting high on pitching an idea to her colleagues. Equally good, despite not winning any awards, is William Holden as Max. Holden was always worth watching in movies but often found himself landed with boring pretty-boy roles or stilted leading-men whose sole purpose in the narrative was to give the heroine a shoulder to lean upon. But in his later years something interesting happened. He didn't lose his looks - that craggy face remained photogenic to the last - but he became much more interestingly shaded as an actor. Pike Bishop in The Wild Bunch began the process and Max Schumacher is his other defining role as an older actor. Holden looks so sad and beaten-down that you instantly sympathise with the man but he's also careful to keep pathos at bay so that you're annoyed with his weakness while you feel sorry for his dilemma. When he finally stands up to Diana and tears her down - in a riveting verbal assault towards the end - he is unforgettable, like the voice of some angry god resonating down the ages to all those who forget their duty to their fellow human beings. He is also an unselfish performer, allowing Beatrice Straight (a boring actress here giving her only worthwhile performance) space to get her own Oscar for a two-scene role.
There's no point hiding the flaws of Network. Sidney Lumet's direction is haphazard and sometimes much too heavy-handed. Never the most subtle of technicians, he makes you too aware of some of the performers, notably Robert Duvall who does nothing but shout. But Lumet has a wonderful skill for capturing a vibe, a sense of energy about being alive in a particular place at a given moment. He showed this skill in some of his best work - Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico, Prince Of The City - and it is this that makes Network exciting to watch. When he fails - as in the scenes of people leaning out of their windows to shout with Howard, a scene which is badly staged - you can see the technique missing, but when he succeeds - as in the monologues, the riveting scenes with the black militants and the pandemonium behind the on-air broadcasts - he is a master of controlling his audience. Owen Roizman's cinematography is, as ever, immaculate in the way it reflects the different environments; sometimes deliberately flat and bland, sometimes harshly contrasted and occasionally, as in the scene with Jenson and Beale, somewhat Gothic. The absence of music for much of the film is interesting - but not unusual for Lumet - and the production design is flawless. On the debit side, Chayefsky tends to over-egg his particular pudding by hitting out in so many directions that focus is lost and his pandering to middle class prejudices is a little suspicious. At times, the film seems almost like a non-ironic version of Falling Down. He also has an odd tendency to use the word 'fuck' to get easy laughs (a trait shared by several New York films of this era, including similarly impressive The Taking Of Pelham 123). But he hits the targets so often - and his intentions are often more liberal than conservative - that it's possible to forgive the scrappy nature of some of his arguments.
I don't think Network is really a great film and it's certainly not great art of any description. But it is a film which is alive and which is saying something about an issue which is of increasing importance and that's something which was rare back in 1976 and is getting rarer all the time. Chayefsky's vision of a world in moral and emotional chaos is so strong that it binds his script together and this binds the film together. As with Lumet's other work of the era - the aforementioned New York movies along with the underrated comedy Just Tell Me What You Want and the British-set, little seen Sean Connery triumph The Offence - it's exciting to watch and packed with vitality. A film like this one which is, in many ways, a mess can be much more stimulating than a film which is, formally, better but lacking in spark and energy. At the end of the day, I think that it's this spark of life which is one of the reasons that we love movies and it's often sufficient to outweigh any number of flaws.
It's taken a surprisingly long time for MGM to get around to releasing this - it's been available on R1 since 1998 - and I'm sorry to say that the disc which has emerged is nothing particularly special. It's not a bad release but it's rather a disappointment considering the pedigree of the film.
The transfer is presented in an anamorphic 1.85:1 format. It's fairly crisp, despite some slight blurring in some of the interiors during the first half hour, and the colours and contrast are fine but there is a considerable amount of artifacting to be seen throughout the film. The grainy picture is, to some extent, intentional although the lack of any restoration doesn't help matters. There is also some print damage, causing scratches and speckling throughout. This is above VHS standard - a contrast with both video and TV versions confirms this - but it could have looked so much better with a bit of care and attention.
The soundtrack is a straight mono transfer of the original monophonic theatrical presentation. It's adequate for the purpose but not all that good, even as mono soundtracks go. There is some hiss throughout and some crackling in places. Some of the sound effects seem a little distorted as well.
The only extra is the original theatrical trailer which, for some reason, is presented in 2.35:1. There are 16 chapter stops and a range of subtitles.
This is yet another film which cries out for additional material - commentaries, background notes, archive location footage - but MGM have done their usual trick of releasing it on an adequate but uninspired DVD. It's a film which is well worth seeing and the DVD is probably worth buying if you can pick it up at a discounted price.