Warner Bros. | 1976 | 121 mins. | R
When director Sidney Lumet and writer Paddy Chayefsky’s Network was released back in 1976, it was regarded as biting satire. Strangely, given our current obsession with reality television, the thought of a network playing to the lowest common denominator with lesbian cops, psychics, and unstable news commentators isn’t too far from the truth. Even if Network seems a bit dated now, Lumet and Chayefsky deserve a lot of credit for being ahead of their time.
At the start of the film, long-time UBS news anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch) is being forced to retire due to sagging viewership. A somber-voiced announcer tells us in a voice-over that Howard was “the grand old man of news,” a veteran broadcaster who used to have the highest audience rating in the nation. But Howard’s popularity declined as he got older, his wife died, he became morose, and he began drinking heavily. The network gives him two final weeks on the air, and then he has to get out.
With nothing to lose, Howard takes to the airwaves and announces he will commit suicide on air, in a week’s time. As it happens, almost nobody in the station’s control booth notices what Howard has just said because, as usual, they’re not paying attention to him. Having caused a national furor, Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall), the new hatchet man for the conglomerate that has just bought the network, tells Howard not to show up for work again.
However, Howard’s longtime friend, Max Schumacher (William Holden), head of the network’s news division, gives him a chance to say his on air goodbyes. Howard goes off the handle again, saying his life is “bullshit” and so is television. Naturally, the network believes they have a big problem on their hands. To everyone’s surprise when the ratings come in, Howard’s blunt talk is a ratings hit.
The network’s new program director, Diana Christiansen (Faye Dunaway), sees a potential cash cow. Business-minded and cold-hearted, Diana will do whatever it takes to bring UBS out of the dumps. She believes “the American people want somebody to articulate their rage for them…they want angry shows,” and she sees an angry old man in Howard.
Howard becomes the “mad prophet of the airwaves,” literally fainting on camera most evenings, and his ratings go through the roof. Then Howard goes completely over the edge, believing that he’s receiving direct messages from a higher power. As Howard dominates the ratings, and a variety of other strange characters are given shows, the question becomes how far will networks go for ratings? Network tells us there is no limit; ratings and money are the be-all-to-end-all. For his performance in Network, Finch won an Academy Award, and in a bit of irony, he died of a stroke while promoting the movie, becoming the only actor in history to receive the Oscar posthumously.
Though Howard’s travails are front and center, the script veers into a couple of other directions. We get to see the effect a romance between Max and Diana has on Max’s married life and his distraught wife (Oscar winner Beatrice Straight). We also watch as Diana launches a series of television shows, one more bizarre than the next. With all credit to Sidney Lumet and Paddy Chayefsky, all of the loose ends tie up nicely.
The 1.85:1 VC-1 HD transfer appears sharp and well-defined. Colors seem a bit more energized as compared to the previous editions. There’s a sharpness that wasn’t present in the earlier versions, though it’s not so sharp that it takes away from the film.
The film’s monaural soundtrack isn’t exemplary, but it does the job. The mix consists almost entirely of dialogue. Effects were minor considerations; they are clear but played such a small role that unless they displayed serious distortion, they rarely mattered. The film also featured virtually no score. The most prominent music heard came from the Howard Beale Show theme. It sounded pretty clear.
Those of you who own the two disc standard DVD won’t find anything new here. Along with the films theatrical trailer is a commentary with director Sidney Lumet in which he details the making of the film and looks back at his early days behind the camera in television.
“The Making of Network”, a multi part documentary covering all the bases from the writer Paddy Chayefsky and his development of the script to the casting. The nearly ninety minute look of the film is quite good.
Also available is a clip from Dinah! with Paddy Chayefsky. To see any clips of Paddy and any kind of representation from him other than stories and pictures is worth a watch anytime.
Finally, there is “Private Screenings: Sidney Lumet”, an hour focusing on director Sidney Lumet with TCM host Robert Osborne going over the majority of his films.
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