Throwback Thursday: The More Things Change, the More Network Stays the Same

Throwback Thursday examines films from the past, “classic” films that might not be in the current cultural zeitgeist but can still be important, interesting, fun, or all of the above.

We have one final week before the election. Are you sick of the coverage yet? Are you hoping for more policy and less fear mongering? Wouldn’t it be great if we focused on policy instead of negative attack ads? All I get from both sides is that we’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore. This makes now the perfect time to look at 1976’s Network. If you don’t recognize the title, you’re in for a treat.

Movie poster for Network.

Network ‘s theatrical poster.

Network follows the twilight career of Howard Beale (Peter Finch), a news anchor of the Union Broadcasting System. He’s summarily fired due to bad ratings, but he’s still expected to finish out the week on air. He gets mad and ends up ranting on live TV that he plans to kill himself during the following night’s broadcast. This causes a bump in the ratings, and he is immediately rehired to see if he can continue the trend. But with his Evening News telecast taken over by the new head of programming, Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway), reporting takes a back seat to ratings, and America’s journalistic integrity starts circling the drain.

Peter Finch in Network raving to the masses.

Peter Finch preaching to the masses.

Network proves to be eerily prescient about how on-air news would be treated as the 20th century came to a close. In the 21st, it continues to be a relevant critique on our society. For example, Diana gives Beale a live studio audience and then creates sensational programming by filming a band of terrorists as they commit a weekly robbery. UBS broadcasts the footage, highlighting the terrorists’ militant leader (Marlene Warfield), thus allowing her to further her own agenda.

Faye Dunaway holding newspaper in Network.

Diana proving that Beale is a ratings bonanza.

Director Sidney Lumet was drawn to films that held up a magnifying glass to different aspects of American culture. From 1964’s Fail-Safe to 1975’s Dog Day Afternoon and 1990’s Q&A, he examines how righteous people interact with society and how society treated these individuals. There’s always a sane, good person in a Lumet film: in Network, that person is William Holden’s character, Max Schumacher, Beale’s original boss and longtime friend. Schumacher isn’t perfect: he makes mistakes. But he tries to do as much good as possible and believes in virtue. He gives a heartfelt speech in the third act of the film when he realizes after having an affair with Diana that continuing it will make him empty inside. He doesn’t expect his wife to take him back, but he vows to try.

Come to think of it, this film is full of great speeches. From Beale’s many rants (which include the aforementioned “We’re mad as hell, and we’re not going to take it anymore”) to Schumacher’s wife Louise (played by Oscar winner Beatrice Straight, who won Best Supporting Actress for her role in this film with only five minutes of screen time) to chairman Arthur Jensen (a brilliantly serious Ned Beatty) who tells Beale “You! Will! Atone!” Every character gets a moment, or many moments, to shine. There’s not a wasted moment of screen time: it’s a fast-paced 120 minutes.

William Holden and Faye Dunaway in Network.

Max and Diana take a ’70s version of a conference call.

More on great direction: Beatty gives his speech in a giant boardroom, purposefully chosen for maximum effect. It looks like the boardroom of God, and Beatty sits at the head of the table. As he starts to talk, the camera slowly loses interest in Beatty and starts to linger on Finch’s face. It’s an amazingly-shot scene. As Beatty’s voice becomes disembodied, we see the effect of this speech on Beale. We watch his conversion to the religion of interrelatedness: we are no longer a nation of countries—we are a nation of corporations.

You can understand why the film was nominated for 10 academy awards, with four wins, including three acting awards (for Finch, Dunaway, and Straight) and Best Original Screenplay for Paddy Chayefsky. Chayefsky won a total of three well-deserved Oscars for his screenplays, but Network is definitely the cherry on his sundae. It didn’t surprise me at all that Aaron Sorkin (West Wing) gave Chayefsky a shout-out when he won his Oscar for The Social Network. You can see Chayefsky’s dialogue and influence all over Sorkin’s work.

Beatty gets his chance to preach in the big boardroom in Network.

The Big Board Room.

From the social satire to the acting, screenplay, and direction, Network really does have it all. If you don’t see it, you’ll be kicking yourself on your deathbed. You might even be mad as hell.

P.S. The funny thing is that as I was finishing up this article, a friend sent me a clip of John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight that deals with journalism in the modern age. It must be kismet. I’ll leave this right here if you want to spend 19 minutes learning about the state of journalism in the year 2016. Not much has changed since 1976.

This film can be found on both Blu-ray and DVD. It is currently available via Netflix, but streaming offerings change frequently, so keep an eye out. Feel free to discuss further in the comments below; just keep it respectful.

If you think there’s a film Throwback Thursday should cover in the future, please let me know in the comments.

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