Sidney Lumet’s lacerating black comedy, ‘Network’, which is also a cautionary film about the power of television seemed to see far into the future with blistering clarity, exploring how reality programming took over television. The fictitious UBS Network rests firmly behind ABC, CBS and NBC and struggles to gain ratings. How they do it, is both alarming and shocking, displaying a casual carelessness for human life that was wounding in its honesty.

Max Schumacher (William Holden) runs the news division of the network, a routine money loser, but Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall) has other ideas. When the anchorman, Howard Beale (Peter Finch) suffers a meltdown on live television announcing one week from that night he will come on TV and kill himself, Hackett sees the money. Max sees his friend in the throes of a nervous breakdown and cannot believe the network wants to exploit his friend. Howard asks for another chance, to go out with some dignity and Max allows it. He goes back on the air and says he said what he said because he was “sick and tired of all the bullshit” and Max leaves him on.

Diana (Faye Dunaway) sees something more in Howard Beale and pitches Hackett as the “mad prophet of the airwaves” ignoring the fact he is mentally ill. When Max is fired, Howard takes the job she offers and in the throes of some crazy vision, he arrives at the station soaking wet and wanders onto the set. Instead of the news he launches into a tirade about the state of affairs in the world and announces to the viewers they have to get up from their couches and chairs, go to their windows, throw them open and scream, “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”

And they do.

They do in New York City, and all the affiliate stations, across the United States, they are screaming Howard’s war cry everywhere. As Diana says in glory, “We hit the motherload.” Very quickly Howard Beale is the hottest thing on TV, going on to say pretty much anything that comes to mind. He believes he has seen God, that he was put on earth to do this, God tells him,  “because you’re on television dummy”. Meanwhile, Max launches into a passionate affair with Diana despite his feelings about what she is doing to Howard and he learns a great deal about her. He feels terrible about what he has done to his wife and family, she is incapable of feeling anything. Max tells her with sadness “you’re television incarnate Diana” and she knows he is right, just as he knows she will one day leap out a window when the screaming loneliness and wasteland of her life becomes apparent. Yes, she is on top right now, in everything including sex with Max, but how long can it all last??

When Beale attacks a huge business deal that crashes because of his rantings, the network finally believes he has outlived his usefulness. In a board room, an ordinary board room, the executives sit and discuss cancelling Howard. “Well, I guess we could kill him,” one says, and that is exactly what they plan to do. They are all complicit, they are aware, they are going to kill this poor man. And they do, live on television at the opening of his show. As soon as the program begins two men stand with weapons and begin firing at Howard, killing him live on the air. Bet it got a helluva rating, and of course, that is the lifeblood of TV.

Television has always been the enemy of the cinema, since the forties through to today. Over the years the film has fought other foes, home video, DVD and Blu Ray and now they find themselves both uneasy allies and enemies with streaming. Paddy Chayevsky started his career writing scripts for early television, so he knew the world and when he wrote about it with Network, it was seen as a scathing attack on television and the world behind it. While it was always seen as a black comedy and satire, I have often wondered how much truth was behind it? With reality programs like ‘Survivor’ and ‘The Amazing Race’ how long before we have a real live death happen right in front of us? I think it is safe to say it will not be long before that.

The performances within ‘Network’ are astounding beginning with world-weary Max, beautifully portrayed by ageing William Holden as an old lion of the news world, not at all happy with it becoming a joke, and more unhappy with what they are doing to Howard, his friend. Holden brings us a guy with the weight of the network on his shoulders, even after he is fired, he still carries that burden. He thinks an affair with Diana will help, but it does not, he realizes all he has done is deeply injure his wife and their family, and he hates himself for it. I believe this is the finest performance of Holden’s long career, the best work he ever did.

As Diana, Faye Dunaway is superb, a ball-breaking woman in a man’s world knowing she must be loaded with testosterone to survive. She breaks rules, she makes enemies, but she does not care, so long as she claws her way to the op of first the news, then the network, and then finally television. Icy, but oddly needy, cold and calculating she is a study in contradictions, like a black panther, sleek, beautiful but dangerous to be near. Though this is not the right genre, she is without question the femme fatale. I am not sure I like what Chayevsky is saying by making her such a devourer of men, or suggesting to be successful in the business a woman must be a ball breaker.

As Howard Beale, Peter Finch is superb, but let us be clear, this is and always was a supporting role. Beale has less than thirty minutes of screen time, two of three really big (and terrific scenes) which to me is a supporting role. Holden was clearly the lead. Looking like a wounded old lion with his magnificent mane of greying hair, Finch has an intensity that seems to burn through the screen. Like a wild-eyed preacher during his “mad as hell” rant, you cannot take your eyes off him, but then later realize how deluded he is, thinking he has seen God. Little more on Finch later.

In strong supporting roles, Robert Duvall is perfectly bombastic and vile as Frank Hackett (love the name), while Beatrice Straight does more in seven minutes of screen time as Max’s wife than most actors bring an entire role. Her tirade when Max tells her is in love with Diana comes right from her raging soul, and he feels every bit of it, though still leaves her, breaking her heart. Ned Beatty in a single scene is electrifying as Mr Jensen, CEO of UPS, who takes Beale into a board room and when he finished, Beale announced to him he has seen the face of God. Jensen has us believing that might just be true.

Hugely popular with critics, Sidney Lumet was once again celebrated as one of the finest in film, earning his second consecutive nomination from the Directors Guild of America Awards, and praise from across North America. His film was a lacerating study of the inner workings. The film was nominated for ten Academy Awards, tying ‘Rocky’ (1976) for the lead that year, and dominated the acting awards with nominations in every category. Best Picture and Best Director nods were shoo-ins, as was Best Screenplay, but the domination within the acting categories was unexpected. Peter Finch insisted the studio campaign him as a lead, forcing their hand, and they did but the actor dropped dead of a massive heart attack a few days before the nominations were announced. Both he and Holden were nominated for Best Actor, while Dunaway was up for Best Actress. Ned Beatty was nominated for Best Supporting Actor and Beatrice Straight was nominated for Best Supporting Actress. In addition, ‘Network’ was nominated for Best Cinematography and Best Film Editing, upping their tally to ten.

Oscar night was among the strangest in years, as the Cinderella love story boxing film ‘Rocky’ won Best Picture over three of the greatest films of the decade, ‘All the President’s Men’, ‘Network’ and ‘Taxi Driver’. But the acting awards were dominated by ‘Network’, with Finch taking Best Actor, Dunaway winning Best Actress, and in a shocker, Beatrice Straight won Best Supporting Actress. There was no surprise when Paddy Chayevsky won the Oscar for his explosive screenplay, but I think many in the audience, and at home felt, the film might have won Best Picture and Best Director. If not ‘Network’, then certainly ‘All the President’s Men’.

In the more than forty years since ‘Network’ explored television becoming a medium dominated by reality-style programming, the industry has indeed been overrun with such programming. Reality TV has taken over TV, as it did in ‘Network’. As I have asked, how long before something truly terrible happens on TV, a death, or killing? I suppose it will get a helluva rating….sadly.

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