Directed By: Sidney Lumet
Written By: Paddy Chayefsky
Starring: Faye Dunawa, William Holden, Peter Finch, Robert Duvall, Beatrice Straight
Network is so seam poppingly stuffed with ideas that it looks as though it’ll burst and leave us adrift in a sea of social commentaries. Paddy Chayefsky’s lauded screenplay is one of the most tenacious of all, setting its vicious satirical wit on seemingly anything that has the gall to move, and doing it with temerity. Just as the story looks to settle on an indictment of the 70’s media drunk society, it’s onto a discussion of the commodification of people. Just as soon as the story turns to those who have traded in feeling for success, it’s onto globalisation. Just as the story looks to rest on a commentary of societal disenchantment, we’re in board rooms being told how economics have displaced humanity. Chayefsky’s screenplay provides a cacophony of ideologies, leaping from one to the other before we’ve had the opportunity to appreciate any of their individual gravities, but somehow it all works. Through all the theses and insights, Chayefsky’s socio-political satire is wildly entertaining, a brazenly chaotic rave of thoughts that’s as arresting as it is overblown.
But Chayefsky couldn’t have provided such entertainment all on his own. There are two key assistors. The performances which breathe life into the writer’s brilliantly conceived characters, and the equally brazen direction of Sidney Lumet.
The central performance belongs to Faye Dunaway as Diana Christensen, the young, pertinacious head of programming for the fledgling television network UBS. UBS is a whorehouse of a station we’re told, a circus show with abysmal ratings that Diana is determined to bring a hit show to. Dunaway’s performance is utterly electric, flailing her arms like a caffeinated conductress and igniting every muscle of her face as she posits her outlandish ideas (including bringing on board a group of radical terrorists as the subjects of a new series). Diana’s is a desperately lonely existence, the only thing she lives for is a 30 share and a 20 rating, but she is so alarmingly inspired and aroused by success that she doesn’t care. The most human thing we see from her is her having sex, but this is only done as a physical means to consummate her pleasure at work.
Diana’s bright idea for a hit show comes in the form of the unhinged, long-time news anchor Howard Beale (an explosive Peter Finch). Howard has lost his mind, he was the first on the chopping block amidst the ratings slump which sent him over the edge, but in his farewell speech on air (after previously promising to kill himself during a broadcast), he begins to passionately vent his rage at the hypocrisies and lost state of society, an exercise which rejuvenates his career as an “Angry Man” which Diana feels must be exploited. For Diana, the American people need a voice to articulate their sullenness coming out of Watergate, Vietnam and the Depression, and Howard is it.
She’s right too. Howard becomes a sensation, much to the dismay of news division president and best friend to Howard, Max Schumacher (William Holden). Max is the closest thing to a moral compass in the film. He’s saddened by the sideshow that the news division has so quickly become under Diana and her belligerent, make-a-buck-first-ask-questions-later boss Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall), but he’s also drawn to Diana, in spite of her enclosure
William Holden, and the sensitive performance of his betrayed wife (played by Beatrice Straight), cut through all the mania and provide the most toned down, human turns in the film, thankfully giving us a chance to catch our breath. These toned down performances are overshadowed however. It would be the riveting Peter Finch who would win an Oscar for his maniacal, eccentric work as the batty Howard, who along with a bellowing performance from Ned Beatty as the conglomerate Arthur Jensen who preaches a “corporate cosmology” like he’s delivering a Sermon on the Mount, and the fiery Dunaway and Duvall, that rule Network with a wild and boisterous iron fist.
Each character is given at least one impassioned monologue, many of them shouted at us with a booming authority. Chayefsky’s dialogue is unmatched for intelligence and articulacy, but with all its cycling through unruly preaching it could all so easily have crashed and burned in a smarts flexing pretentiousness if Lumet wasn’t so willing to double down. Sidney Lumet’s audacity allows Chayefsky’s audacity to make sense. The director gives his stage a cartoonish cynicism, where all the excessiveness seems logical. This is why we go along with it all. This is why we never question the fact that millions of people worship a clearly insane Howard Beale as a prophet. It’s Lumet that permits Chayefsky’s cynicism to be so biting. But the director is also sure to keep the film taut. He doesn’t wallow in the monologues and melodrama which he so easily could have; he doesn’t allow the screenplay’s confidence to spill into arrogance.
Network is all a bit much. With its fierce performances and net of ideologies, it knowingly bites off more than it can chew and insists on jamming it down its own throat as far it will go. But it is equally entertaining, it is mesmerising and funny and haunting, and I’d rather a film have too much ambition than none at all.