Before The Hunger Games, and its depiction of a televised death match for teens, there was Network, perhaps the most prescient film ever made. Released in 1976, Network foreshadows the gruesome future of television as it slides nearer and nearer to county fair freak show. Caustic, incisive and at times frightening, if modern writers managed half of Paddy Chayefsky’s lines in Network, we’d all be better off for it.
The plot is simple. A network is going down the tubes and in order to save it, the reckless, soulless and brilliant Faye Dunaway is given free reign over programming. She forwards numerous efforts, the most popular being The Howard Beale Show, a nightly venue given to a network news anchor (Peter Finch) who is slowly going mad.
The script bogs down a bit in the last quarter, mainly, I think, because the medium of film does not handle monologues for two hours, and in between Chayefsky’s smart dialogue, this is essentially a film of well-delivered speeches.
The movie is filled with gems. Finch making his mark with an on-air nervous breakdown (“I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”) or corporate titan Ned Beatty thundering to Finch that he has meddled with “the forces of nature” after one of his on-air screeds affects an oil investment. A scene that is unparalleled involves the activists from the Ecumenical Liberation Organization, a quasi-Symbionese Liberation Organization, upon which Dunaway is basing a “reality” show. These revolutionaries for the proletariat are soon perverted by the influence of TV and begin squabbling as to points and percentages off the back end. There are also wonderful pitch scenes for shows that in 1976 would have seemed outrageous, but would now be ho hum.
There are some weaknesses. The romance between Dunaway and William Holden, the old network bull, is unconvincing. It is easy to understand a older man-younger woman dalliance, but in this case, Dunaway plays as a frenetic shark. Her character freely admits she is a lousy lay and then demonstrates as much with Holden. Dunaway’s character is about power and moving up (when a young, non-powerful man kisses her shoulder, Dunaway’s sharp “Knock it off” tells you all you need to know), and the fact that Holden does not see it is problematic.
Perhaps it was Holden trying to understand the future, or he was waning and wanted a taste of youth. It’s possible that Dunaway, like televison, is empty but still capable of beguiling Holden for a time, like Beale’s viewers. But the relationship seems peculiar and off-kilter. That said, some of Chayefsky’s best lines are during their conversations, so the curious nature of the couple can be forgiven.
Network is deservedly ranked 64 on AFI’s Top 100 movies.