Network Special Edition Review

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. We really do have shows consisting solely of auto-wrecks and near fatal injuries and we’ve had a show in which the whole hook was whether Derren Brown would have his brains blown out live on air. You might argue that the last example was nothing more than a magician’s stunt but the point is that the come-on led people to expect the possibility of a live death. Add to that the fact that corporations have taken over the media in a similarly aggressive way to that depicted in the film and you have a document which is astonishingly prescient.

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 simple overstated reality and it's a tightrope that he walks brilliantly (as he did in 1971's The Hospital, a film which can now be viewed on DVD and contains George C. Scott’s career-best performance). Chayefsky also writes fantastic dialogue – occasionally a bit over-literary but always memorable and nothing is better than 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 – “I’m your wife, goddamit, and if you can’t work up a winter passion then the least I deserve is respect and allegiance” - the head of UBS's parent company (Ned Beatty) explaining the way of capitalism to Howard – “There is no America, there is no democracy, there is only IBM and ITT and AT&T and Dupont, Dow, Union Carbide and Exxon” - 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 and maybe even better, 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. Holden is the moral compass of the movie, one which is shaky for a time but which finally comes out straight and true.

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 is very funny in his asides but sometimes seems to do 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 as badly staged as it is famous - 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. 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). Who is the villain here – well it’s the militants, the whites, the blacks, the women, the men, the capitalists, the communists, the revolutionaries, the working classes, the middle classes and so on and so forth. Chayefsky seems to be pandering to middle-class prejudices at times and then he begins to hit out at them as well. He’s often very funny and very sharp but it’s easy to get exhausted after a while. But he hits the targets so often - and his intentions are, I think, genuinely humanistic - 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. It’s scrappiness turns you on but prevents it from making the kind of intellectual impact which would match its emotional punch. 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 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 - a cri-de-couer against the 'shrieking nothingness' - which is one of the reasons that we love movies and it's often sufficient to outweigh any number of flaws.

The Disc

This is the third Region 1 release of Network following one from MGM and one from Warners – both of which had the same transfer and identical, minimal extras. This time, Warners have given it the royal treatment, matching a lovely new transfer with in-depth and entertaining extra features.

The new anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer is a considerable improvement with the colours looking so much stronger that it almost seems like a different film. The slightly grainy look is entirely intentional on the part of Lumet and Owen Roizman but the grain doesn't slip into grime and unsightly texturing as it did in the earlier release. There is a very small amount of print damage present in places and very occasional artifacting but overall it's a very strong effort indeed. Fine detail is exceptional throughout. The mono soundtrack is also very strong with beautifully clear dialogue and an atmospheric ambience of chat which reflects the world of the newsroom.

The first disc features the theatrical trailer and a commentary from Sidney Lumet. This is an excellent track during which Lumet gives us copious background information about television - the world from which both he and Chayefsky came - and plenty of gossip about the production. His tendency to say nice things about everybody is more touching than irksome due to his evident sincerity, and he is clearly passionately in love with the movie.

The second disc contains a lengthy making-of documentary and a couple of archive treasures. The documentary is in six parts, consisting of five production featurettes and a response to the film by the venerable TV news anchorman Walter Cronkite. Each part can be watched individually or the whole lot can be viewed in one. The running time is roughly 85 minutes. It’s a typical Laurent Bouzereau piece in that the interviews are excellent but to get to them you have to sit through a morass of film clips and some of that over-literal linkage that I mentioned in my review of Dog Day Afternoon - someone says “ A phone rang” and we get a clip of a phone ringing. But there’s enough meat here to keep it watchable – interviewees include Lumet, producer Howard Gottfried, Owen Roizman, Faye Dunaway, Ned Beatty and

The archive material consists of an extract from “Dinah!” with Paddy Chayefsy and a splendid hour long conversation between Sidney Lumet and Robert Osborne from the TCM series “Private Screenings”. The former piece is brief but enjoyable because Chayefsky is a very engaging speaker and more than capable of holding his own in the face of Dinah Shore’s incredibly patronising and not especially informed style of interviewing. The latter is a fascinating opportunity to hear Lumet discuss his filmmaking with an interlocutor who is knowledgeable and enthusiastic. There are a reasonable number of clips but the focus is on Lumet talking and he’s a rare director who can articulately discuss both his own films and the social context in which they were made.

As usual, the film has optional subtitles but the extra features do not. The film is divided into 32 chapters.

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