Retrospective: Network (1976)

This movie has one of the most iconic lines of any film: ‘I’m as mad as hell’ which has been copied and used ever since. This a mid 70s movie which has aged very well and is strangely prescient in seeing the rise of shock jocks and the changing face of news TV in the United States with an increasing focus on the development of comment rather than of facts.

The movie focus on three major characters. Peter Finch plays the iconic Howard Beale, a drunken reporter who has a break down on air and is transformed into the mad prophet of the network. Faye Dunaway plays a very driven TV exec sleeping her way to the top while obsessing over the show’s ratings. Robert Duvall is an exec going places and finally William Holden plays Max Schumacher, who as Howard Beale’s boss is manipulated, exploited and generally the most sympathetic character apart from making a catastrophically stupid choice.

The movie starts with a narrator explaining that Howard Beal is a respected news anchor until his wife dies and he becomes an alcoholic wreck, explaining his declining ratings. The shocked T.V producers watch him declare that he will kill himself live on his final show and he hopes the producers will be able to get considerable advertising for this great event. What is so very impressive about this film is how plausible it all feels as he starts off very normally and then builds towards this rather manic look, culminating in a huge rant that just gets bigger and bigger with the various characters going into damage control and shifting blame. This is done through the development of two fantastically cynical characters. Frank Hackett (Duvall) Diane Christensen (Dunaway) see what it does to the viewing share and the free press it gains the station. Soon Beale is hosting a new program called The Howard Beale Show, top-billed as “the mad prophet of the airwaves”

The bulk of the movie consists of conversations and its humor is interlaced with dialogue (in the manner of Robert Altman). Although sometimes it can be hard to hear, it acts as important character development. When a room stops when a character starts it is easy to see what kind of relationship each character has with one another inside a hugely busy TV studio.

What also make this an important retrospective is that it is very sharply filmed. Its use of shots and angles creates a very biting and difficult satire. What I see in modern satire such as Three Lions is that they lack the same sense that they care as much about the making of the movie as well as the producing of a good script. Sidney Lumet was one of the biggest directors of the 1970s, specializing in these difficult movies which were controversial then and haven’t aged at all. This movie could be made yesterday with the same amount of acclaim as it had in 1976. It’s very sharply made with nice tracking shots and a variety of different angles both to express characters’ emotions, such as the many wonderful uses of close ups on Peter Finch during his rants.

Incidentally, with Oscars season on the horizon coming up here’s some trivia. The 5 minutes of Schumacher’s wife (Beatrice Straight) is the shortest performance to win an Oscar, showing the strength of even the smaller things of this movie. Speaking of Oscars, until Heath Ledger won his award, Peter Finch was the only other actor to die and still receive an Oscar from the academy. There’s an icebreaker at the pub.

Before I conclude, I have to add one major scene which involves the question of what do you with Howard Beale when he loses his appeal and the boss won’t let you fire him? For the characters it’s simple. You have him killed to help set up your other program about revolutionaries. The meeting is fantastic as you nod on in agreement. After what has happened earlier it all seems so perfectly logical. You get a bunch of Marxist who want their show to be a success and you agree some free press would be very useful. It’s only later you realize what exactly it all means, and its implications.

This is one of those movies with an iconic reputation and deservedly so with one of the largest amount of Oscars for acting (4). It is a master class of rants, cynical exploitation, and obsession. It is sharply filmed and says a lot about the state of the nation at a time which was angry, fearful and felt in decline. It was made during an oil crisis post Vietnam and Watergate when trust in authority was low and inflation was high. With the distrust in government still very high in America and the power of populist media, Network needs to be watched.

Retrospective by Harry Riedl


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