Often with satire there exists a thin line between that which is too subtle and borders on undeveloped and pushing something too far. With regards movies, both can be seamlessly and beautifully amalgamated into one creature, a difficult taskmaster in and of itself, but another interesting instance is where the boundaries of reason are truly tested; and it succeeds.
Such is the case with “Network”, a masterpiece from the otherwise indisputable Sidney Lumet.
Relating personal crisis to social change, Network explains the slow downfall of major network news (and perhaps omnisciently the news media as a whole) within the United States. Howard Beale (Peter Finch), the long-suffering news anchor of the UBS Evening News loses his job and decides to kill himself on air for his final show. Everyone would be relatively unconcerned except he announced it on air leading to Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall) firing both Beale and long-time friend/producer Max Schumacher (William Holden). Only with the intervention of entertainment programming producer Diane (Faye Dunaway) are both reinstated but Beale’s steady decline into senility presents itself as an opportunity to revolutionize UBS and network news as a whole, with Schumacher presenting himself as his only real ally.
Born before Fox and it’s critically derided broadcasts, the film in many ways feels like an apocalyptic foretelling of the future. One where news becomes entertainment to be programmed. Where critical, populist anger trumps an honest retelling of the facts. Howard’s progressive spiral of despair is exploited for the benefit of advertising and numbers, with few seeing it for what it really is and even less attempting to rectify it.
Although largely satirical, a large part of it’s fictional predictions have come true and far more does not seem entirely outside the realms of possibility. In attempting to express not just the ills of the media but those of 1970s society, it perhaps spreads itself thin yet the parallels between that earlier recession, the rise of partisan commentary masking itself as news or more indirectly, the shift from informative or experimental reality TV to that which seeks to entertain at any costs, are glaring. Society and television act as a symbiotic crutch for one another, cyclicly deepening an already unhealthy relationship of wants rather than needs. Instant gratification rather than (in general) creating art.
The diatribes follow such a constant and sustained pattern, it is possible for the feature as a whole to veer into vain territory yet the irony of each is never lost, saving it from its own potential hubris.
Finch’s articulation of Beale is mesmerising, terrifying in its wonder as is Dunaway in her optimistic opportunism. Duvall as always plays Duvall rather than an actual character (though it’s always interesting to ponder which is which). Inevitably however, only Marlene Warfield as revolutionary Laureen Hobbs and Beatrice Straight come close to matching Finch’s performance in both entertainment value and grandeur respectively.
Yes in truth Lumet’s film is not entirely concise or perfectly executed, but the cold nature of its presentation to us as the audience and unapologetic approach as a whole invariably grants it a longevity that echoes still.