In 'Network,' a weathered news anchor has had enough. He's sick of being the robot behind the news and only having that to live for. He's sick of being alone, and once he loses his job -- his only reason for living -- he's also sick of being alive. At first, he takes his firing like he takes the stunning news that rolls across the screen -- casually and calmly. But that soon changes. Having nothing left to live for, and nothing left to lose, Howard Beale decides to be honest with the viewers.
While the control room busies itself with commercials and the technological aspects of the news program, Beale sits calmly in his chair, announces that he's been canned, and that when his last broadcast airs, he will shoot himself on national television. At first, the higher-ups have no idea what's going on. When they do, they're ready to fire him early, to keep him off the television. But one woman -- Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) -- sees the potential in Beale's craziness and wants to milk it for all its worth.
And she does, setting the stage for a film that would earn ten Academy nominations, four wins and be just as relevant today as it was back in 1976, when it hit screens for the first time.
It's hard to write about 'Network' because it's a film that is the great sum of its parts -- of all its many, many parts.
On the one hand, it's the story about finding a way to feel. Beale evolves from numbness to sarcasm, and once he reveals that he doesn't "have any bullshit left. I just ran out of it, you see," he has nothing more to do than get angry. And he gets angry in one of the most iconic rants to hit the screen. It's memorable not only for its catchiness -- "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore!" -- but for how perfectly it encapsulates the human experience. It has found the essence felt by the audience -- which Walt Disney wrote about: "let it have a foundation of fact, in order that it may more richly possess sincerity and contact with the public."
"Network' also satirizes our structures of society -- how we are to act, what we should say. As Beale, Peter Finch beautifully intermingled enough humanity with his craziness that it's just as easy to wonder if we're the ones that are crazy, and he's merely the aggravated and sensible man lashing out at the craziness that surrounds him. For the real audience, Beale is the figure who's loved for his desire to say what he feels, and it's a bittersweet realization that the on-screen audience doesn't agree. They want his outrage to be true and inspiring, not true and discouraging.
It's all a part of the spin implemented by Christensen, revealing just how easy it is to take an inspiring, and stunningly honest sentiment and repackage it for television -- to sensationalize it in a way where the meaning behind the words loses all meaning. But we cannot expect more from her, another figure who cannot feel. She is the iconic and cold business man in a woman's body. Her passion is her work, and everything else is secondary. Diana cannot communicate, and though she lusts for Max Schumacher (William Holden), it's immediately apparent that it's much more for his television history than for his self. Dunaway is able to take one of the great men of Hollywood, and flip the tables so that he's in the traditionally female role. Max talks about his feelings, about how he's "tired of being an accessory" in her life and yearns for "simple human decency."
This progressiveness makes the film stunning, but these 35 years later, the impact is as much due to its prescience as it is its filmmaking and acting.
"TV is showbiz, Max, and even the news has to have a little showmanship." This idea fuels the whole affair until it spirals out of control into television execs playing god. Diana and her team represent more than the downfall of the news program -- and oh, can you imagine Beale, Schumacher and the rest dealing with what the news is now? We see Beale's outbreak swallowing out the "real" news stories of his time, and that's nothing compared to today's Parises and Lindsays. "You're beginning to think that the tube is reality" just paves the way for our television future of reality TV and all the "graverobbers" only interested in Beale being a hit.
We are the audience that writer Paddy Chayefsky envisioned. Our reality shows are based on pain and humiliation, from the Coreys to the regular folks who make themselves ill to win a prize and 15 minutes of fame. He saw the world's titillation in seeing people knocked down and was able to apply it in such a way that it outlines over thirty years of media. When commercials drown out the news of Beale's demise -- it's the open door to how media would play out -- being a business, not a forum for news and enlightenment.
But the most beautiful thing is that in all this dark comedy, there's a nugget of hope within the hopelessness. Beale's message still works for today -- a battle cry to pull ourselves out of apathy and scream that we're not going to take it. A battle cry against the world at large, and at how we ingest media now. Whether we take Chayefsky up on that ... well, that decision rests with us.
- Like other films of that period, 'Network' reaches a crescendo early on, before unrolling into Beale's slow demise. Is this a screenwriting technique that could be employed today, or is it better off retired?
- The prescience of the film remains it's most notable characteristic. Does this suggest a cyclical nature to life, or Chayefsky's brilliance?
- Holden and Dunaway's love affair suggest that it would be easy to change the traditional male and female roles and still have them thrive on the screen. Do you agree?
- What aspect of the film sticks out most to you?