Network is a biting, brilliant commentary on corporate greed and the powerful influence of a little box known as television.
Starring William Holden, Peter Finch, Faye Dunaway and Robert Duvall
Directed by Sidney Lumet
Released by Metro-Goldwyn Mayer
Howard: I’m going to blow my brains out right in the middle of the seven o’clock news.
Max: It’ll get a hell of a rating, I guarantee you that. 50 share easy.
Howard: You think so?
Max: Sure. We could make a series of it. Suicide of the week. Hell, why limit ourselves? Execution of the week.
Howard: Terrorist of the week.
Max: I love it.
Years ahead of its time and whose message is ever prevalent, Network is a brilliant satire that delves into the inner workings of the television industry. While the plot is perhaps an exaggeration, the message it delivers to the viewer certainly is not: in the business of television, appealing to advertisers and the all important 18-24 demographic will always come first. Creating quality programming meanwhile, whether it’s the news or original content, will always come in at a very distant second and if that.
Use of a narrator usually means the kiss of death for a film. Why it works so well here is in his monotone, non partisan voice the narrator makes it feel like a respectable news anchor is commenting on the madcap world of the (fictional) UBS network.
Within the first moments of the film, the narrator sets up the plot for the audience: communications company CCA has recently acquired UBS and is eager to trim the fat and increase profits. One of CCA’s first decisions is to fire long time evening news anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch). This decision will ultimately lead to the symbolic death of respectable journalism.
Tasked with firing Howard is the head of the UBS news division and Howard’s long time friend Max Schumacher (William Holden). As Max and Howard drunkenly mourn the death of Howard’s career, it feels like both the characters and the actors who play them have given their lives to their profession.
It’s not hard to see: they enter their retirement years they wear the proof of all the pain and hard work on their faces. Holden especially seems to have aged allot more than twenty three years between Sabrina (1954) and this film and where David Larrabee was an energetic and carefree playboy, the tired and anxious Max Schumacher is all that’s left.
Max is a respected figure in the television industry, but after Howard’s firing he begins to realize just how little input he has in the decision making process anymore. Max’s main grievance for this is with the main CCA man inside UBS, Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall).
Hackett is a man whose solitary purpose in life is earning money and therefore has no time for frivolous things like manners or humanity. Duvall is one of those great actors who can play the good guy or bad guy with equal measures of brilliance. In Network he gives Hackett just the right amount of cruelty, greed and ambition to make the character despicable yet entirely believable.
Frustrated with Hackett’s constant intrusion in his division, Max makes the impulsive decision to allow Howard to give a wildly inappropriate goodbye speech on the air, but what Max sees as a final fuck you to the network who abandoned him turns into a full-blown media frenzy. Within days, the media machine has turned Howard, a depressed and alcoholic news anchor, into an “angry prophet denouncing the hypocrisy of our times.”
A hilarious scene that follows is when a furious Hackett initially wants to bury the Howard scandal as soon as possible, but the moment he hears there’s positive reaction to Howard’s ranting he immediately responds with “Well how are we handling it?”
One of the ways the network handles it is giving the UBS news show to up- and-coming executive Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway). Diana is a programming executive, not a journalist, but CCA likes her because as she tells Max “TV is show business and even the news has to have a little showmanship ” and a show is just what the UBS news turns into.
With Howard’s rants, a fortune teller and an attractive studio audience Diana literally turns the UBS evening news into a bizarre spectacle:
Diana is an interesting character because in a different film she would have been relegated to simply being the love interest. While Diana and Max do have an affair, she makes it abundantly clear during their first date that since she has the same career ambitions as a man, she’s never managed to sustain a relationship very long.
While in most Hollywood films, even in 2010, the workaholic woman gives it all up after meeting the right man, Diana Christensen makes the decision to give up her lover so that she can continue her climb up the UBS ladder. Having her simply marry Max and become his housewife would have been an enormous letdown. While Diana ends up becoming just as soulless and greedy as Frank Hackett, it’s somehow refreshing to see a woman make her own decision, even to become a bad guy.
Finch is so powerful delivering Howard’s rants that no matter how many times you watch Network there will always be apart of you that’s affected and wants to scream out the window.
Howard initially impresses UBS and CCA executives with his general rants about consumer culture. The problem, of course, with putting a depressed and slightly mad man on the air is that it’s impossible to control what he says. By the end of the film they’re furious when he turns on them and reveals sensitive material that could affect the corporation’s reputation amongst shareholders.
Scrambling for ways to get rid of him, the film’s final message seems to be that a man like Howard would have never made it on the air for one simple reason. Even with all the hundreds of channels out there, there’s no room for truth in television.