Review by J.T. Johnson
Released in 1976, writer Paddy Chayefsky and director Sidney Lumet’s “Network” is a satirical drama that follows a group of people working for the fictional Union Broadcasting System. It’s been a few months since UBS was bought by a major corporation called the Communication Corporation of America. Before long, they announce that they are merging their autonomous news division with their programming department due to the money lost by the new programs.
After they decide to fire low rated news anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch), he mentions that in one week’s time, he’s going to kill himself on air. Understandably, the people at the top are not happy with this and fire Howard immediately. Soon, though, they all discover that the show is a major ratings hit and shrewd television producer Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) convinces the higher ups to keep Howard on the air with his madman persona.
The movie is a highly effective and darkly satirical look at how corporations were not only taking over the news, but turning it from the respectable institution it used to be into a sensational and ratings driven nightmare. The movie then shows how the corporations consolidate all media and turn it into a tool to promote their products and their own business agendas.
It doesn’t even matter that their new “prophet” Howard is legitimately insane. At first, it appears that the higher ups don’t know that he’s not just an angry man. However, you begin to realize that they do know, especially in a startling scene by Ned Beatty as CCA owner Arthur Jensen when he attempts to use Howard’s own words against him to make Howard go back on one of his broadcasts after Howard threatens a deal that the CCA was trying to make with a Saudi Arabian company.
Beyond the manipulations of their new hit, though, we also get to see the lives of the souless people who run the corporation. Diana is consumed by her drive to make the network number one. Even when she begins an affair and has a weekend getaway, all she can talk about the entire time is how the network is doing.
Robert Duvall plays one CCA’s top men and he too is consumed, not by television but by the corporation’s bottom line. He only sees numbers and money. Unlike Diana, though, he knows that he is simply a part of a machine and that any one of them can be replaced at any time if the ratings begin to slide.
We also see just how emotionless and souless these people become as they are consumed by this corporate machine. The movie reaches a surprising conclusion when these people make a terrible decision when Howard’s ratings begin to slip again. At the top of the film, you wouldn’t believe that the movie was heading in the direction that it ends up taking, but after you see how these people act, their choice doesn’t feel at all out of place.
The movie is filled with powerhouse performances from Dunaway, Duvall and William Holden as Max Schumacher. This character is the old head of the news division that might still have some of his soul left over. The only question is whether or not Max will overcome his own doubts and demons as the film progresses.
Of course, the best performance in the film is Finch as the mad newsman Howard. Despite the fact that the we in the audience know that he is absolutely crazy, when Finch delivers one of his now famous speeches, we relate to what he is saying because, mad or not, he’s showing us our own frustrations, unfiltered by the censors. This is, of course, amplified by his now “I’m as mad as hell” speech.
Today, we live in a world where the corporate machine is more than alive and well. Look at all the networks today and you’ll find a massive corporation behind the curtains. This makes the film itself a little too prophetic about how the world runs. The script, the direction, the performances and most definitely the story make this a film that I highly recommend not only as a classic film, but as one with a message that is still as clear today as it was 43 years ago.