Film Review: Network (dir. by Sidney Lumet)


With the recent passing of director, Sidney Lumet, I decided to watch one of Lumet’s best-known films, the 1976 best picture nominee Network.

Network tells the story of Howard Beale (played by Peter Finch).  Howard is a veteran news anchor at a fictional television network.  Because his ratings are in decline, Howard is fired.  Howard reacts to this by announcing that he will commit suicide at the end of the next broadcast.  Ironically, so many people tune in to see Howard kill himself that his ratings improve and Howard gets to keep his job under the watchful eyes of news director Max Shumacher (William Holden) and network executive Dianne Christiensen (Fay Dunaway). 

At the same time, Max and Dianne are adulterous lovers.  The course of the film’s narrative finds Max abandoning his wife (Beatrice Straight) and Dianne, who is described as a “child of the tube,” enthusiastically trying to produce an early reality television show starring a group of Marxist revolutionaries.  They do this under the paranoid eyes of network president Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall) and Frank’s boss, the corrupt Arthur Jenson (Ned Beatty).

However, Howard Beale isn’t just an over-the-hill news anchor.  He’s actually a seriously mentally ill man who hears voices and who starts to see himself as some sort of messiah.  Eventually, this leads to a disheveled Howard giving a crazed speech in which he encourages viewers to yell, “I’m as mad as Hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”  Yes, this is the famous scene that is always used whenever some pompous media jackass wants to criticize the current state of television.  Even though I think it’s one of the most overrated scenes in history, here it is:

Anyway, after this scene, Dianne starts to promote Howard as the “Mad Prophet of the Airwaves” and Max gets all outraged over how the news no longer has any integrity (bleh, Max is kinda full of himself) and eventually, Howard’s mad rantings get the attention of Arthur Jenson who has plans of his own for Howard.  The whole thing eventually ends on one of those rather dark notes that’s impressive the first time you watch it but just seems more heavy-handed and clumsy with subsequent viewings.

As you might be able to tell from my review, I almost felt as if I was watching two different movies when I watched Network.  For the first hour, the movie is a sharp and clever satire on the media.  The characters are sharply drawn, the performance are full of nuance, and even the villainous Dianne is allowed a bit of humanity.  And then, Howard gives his famous “mad as Hell” speech and the entire freaking film pretty much just falls apart as suddenly, all the characters start to act like cartoons.  The film’s satire becomes so heavy-handed that you actually find yourself wanting to watch something mindless and brainless just because you know it would piss off self-righteous old Max.  The actors stop acting and instead concentrate on shouting.  Whatever humanity Dianne had been allowed suddenly vanishes and she just becomes yet another stereotypical “castrating bitch.”  Max gets to spend a lot of time telling her why she’s worthless and it pretty much all comes down to the fact that 1) she’s under 40 and 2) she has a vagina.  (Never mind the fact that Max has abandoned his wife, apparently men are allowed to be assholes.)  By the time the 2nd half of the film ends, you don’t care about whatever the film’s message may have been.  You’re just happy that everyone has finally shut up.

As I sat through the second half of this film, it soon became apparent to me why Aaron Sorkin has continually cited Network‘s screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky as a major influence.  Chayefsky won an Oscar for writing Network and he’s constantly cited as one of the greatest screenwriters of all time but, quite frankly, his script isn’t that good.  Much like Sorkin’s work, you’re aware of the screenplay not because of what the characters say but because they say so much.  This is the type of film that is often wrongly called prophetic by bitter old men.  This is largely because the script itself was written by a bitter old man.  The only true insight one gets from this movie is the insight that the old will always view the young and the new as a threat.

And yet, even as the second half of the film collapses around us, Network still holds our attention.  We’re still willing to stick around to see how all of this ends (and keep an eye out for a 17 year-old Tim Robbins who made his uncredited film debut at the end of Network).  This has nothing to do with anything written by Paddy Chayefsky and everything to do with the direction of Sidney Lumet.  I once read somewhere that you can’t make a good film out of a bad script.  I’m not sure who said that though it has a definite William Goldman sound to it.   Well, if nothing else, Network proves that this is not always the case. 

To me, there is no more fitting tribute to Sidney Lumet than to say that he somehow managed to create something worthwhile out of Network.

6 responses to “Film Review: Network (dir. by Sidney Lumet)

  1. I liked Network a lot but I can see what you mean by the Aaron Sorkin-like script. I like to say that Paddy Chayefsky was at least a product of his time as a writer, but Sorkin he pretty much took what Chayefsky’s style and made it his own.

    As for the “Mad as hell” scene I can’t say whether it still holds up or whether it has been beaten to death by its constant referencing by other films or the news media itself, but the first time I saw the scene it really worked.

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    • I really didn’t have a problem with the script until Howard’s “Mad as Hell” speech and I think that’s because that moment came out of nowhere, went totally counter to the logic that the film had just spent the past hour setting up, and as a result, the rest of the movie had to play out at the same level of intensity.

      I don’t know how long its been since you’ve sat through this film but if you’ll remember, towards the end, there’s this scene where William Holden has it out with Faye Dunaway and oh my God, while I was watching this scene, I was just sitting there thinking, “Is he ever going to shut up!?” I mean, he just kept going and going and going and going and it was all about how Dianne was a child of television and how she was dangerous and bad and blah blah blah and I was just like, “Let’s see, who’s the one who abandoned his wife and family here?” I mean, it was as if the film would have us believe that Dianne’s obsession with work was somehow the moral equivalent of Max abandoning his family. And I imagine that in Chayefsky’s eyes, it probably was since, by being an executive, Dianne was abandoning her obligation to be someone’s wife and mother.

      Paddy Chayefsky was apparently such a powerful figure during the 70s that he was one of the only scriptwriters to actually have a contract that stated that his scripts had to be filmed exactly as written — no improv, no change in the dialogue from what was on the page. (Sound like any contemporary writer who I can’t stand?) In his autobiography, Ken Russell wrote about having to make the film Altered States from a Chayefsky script. Russell hated Chayefsky and he dealt with all of Chayefsky’s pretentious dialogue by doing things like directing his actors to mumble or specifically setting scenes around a dinner table so that the actors would end up delivering the lines while their mouths were full. 🙂 I mean, as a writer myself, I know I shouldn’t be amused by that but I can’t help it. I just love that story. 🙂

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