REVIEW: NETWORK (1976) Dir. Sidney Lumet

In all of cinema, if I had only one choice of genre in which completely surrounded my career, I think I would choose Satire.  I’m not talking about simple parody (although, I love using other media as a way to make fun of something else), but genuine satire which gets at the heart of the truth in world we live in.  The best satires are cutthroat and brutal.  As a teenager, Berkeley Breathed was my favorite cartoon satirist, with both his strips Bloom County and Outland.  While in my early years I didn’t always understand the cultural references Breathed was making fun of, I understood it enough to know that there was a lot of anger behind the humor.  But he was able to convey his anger in such a brilliant way, and in the way Howard Beale in Network grabbed the nation with over 40 million viewers in the nation, Breathed had the attention of 40 million newspaper readers in America.  Of course, the difference between Beale and Breathed being that Breathed probably had a healthier way of venting his anger, and probably no plot to assasinate him by his editors (Although I’m sure he got plenty of threats).  But some of the greatest films ever made, including the number one film of all time, Citizen Kane, have been satires.  Network may hands down be one of the greatest satires I’ve ever seen.  And one of the most brilliant films ever made.  

It’s not only hilarious, it’s a brutally angry film.  This is not a movie that is simply a comment during the time it was made, but a fortelling prophecy of the downfall of the news media.  For that era, it was television.  For this generation, it’s social media, and the zombification of our culture.  The loss of the individual.  And the rise corporations controlling the media and the masses.  It’s all there in Ned Beatty’s incredible (and hilarious) speech to newscaster Howard Beale, who has gone too far, and the moment the chairman/CEO of UBS has to intervene and cut Howard’s balls off (metaphorically speaking of course).  In saying this however, I don’t want to imply that the film is saying television is bad or social media is bad.  But it’s a great power used to irresponsible means, and with great maddness, its been used over time to corrupt society.  What better way to portray any of this than a newscaster who has gone over the deep end and into mental illness.  Howard Beale ironically and unintentionally plays a part in the manipulation of the masses.  As much as what he spews forth in his evangelical rantings may be truthful, the mass audience of Americans take it in like zombies, following his every command.  The manipulation goes farther with Faye Dunaway’s Diane Christainsen, a young ambitious TV executive, who doesn’t care about any of what Beale is saying as long as he can pull in the ratings.  Then there’s William Holden’s Max Schumacher, Howard’s best friend, and the only man completely outraged that the network is taking advantage of Howard who is in the midst of a mental breakdown.  

Peter Finch as Howard Beale.  This may well be one of the greatest, most memorable roles I’ve seen from an actor.  I would like to say about Howard‘s breakdown…watching the decline of his mental health is not only outrageously funny, it’s a completely honest portrayal of a psychotic meltdown.  There is the most classic scene in the film, where Howard has disappeared the whole day in nothing but his pajamas and a trenchcoat, walking around in the pouring rain, only to arrive dressed as he is, muttering and talking to himself as we walks in, and he’s put right on the air for his next broadcast, delivering his famous, I’M MAD AS HELL, AND I‘M NOT GOING TO TAKE IT ANYMORE!” speech.  Most sign early on for Howard’s mental decline is his hilarious and frightning speech to Max about feeling having his moment of clarity:   

HOWARD: “This is not a psychotic episode. This is a cleansing moment of clarity. I’m imbued, Max. I’m imbued with some special spirit. It’s not a religious feeling at all. It’s a shocking eruption of great electrical energy. I feel vivid and flashing, as if suddenly I’d been plugged into some great electromagnetic field. I feel connected to all living things. To flowers, birds, all the animals of the world. And even to some great, unseen, living force.  

There is a great amount of symbolism across the board as television becomes the center of a kind of religious uprising, complete with stained glass windows, and the telling title, “The Howard Beale Show”.  His arguments are stream of consciousness as he just starts spewing forth the end of civilization, and underneath the hilarity of it all is a tragic man at the end of his rope…a man who could no longer keep up with the rest of the world.

 There are separate subplots throughout the film, which deal not just with Howard’s rise to evangelical stardom, but also the behind the scenes romance between Max and Diane.  The attraction is truthful and completely believable given the situation, as two completely different generations come together, a man exiting his field as a producer of a once respectable news cast, and a young woman who is completely plugged in to the racy, tabloid infested world the media has become, where even during sex she can’t stop talking about her job.  The tragedy for her in the end is her inability to unplug, as life for her plays out for her in a set role, never giving herself any thought to her own individualism.  It’s a doomed relationship on both ends.  Also in an extraordinary performance is Beatrice Straight as Mrs. Schumacher, Max’s wife.  Miss Straight won the Supporting Actress Oscar for the shortest performance in the Academy’s history, under 6 minutes of screen time.  She sells a complete three dimensional character in that quick running time, and her arguement with Max is one of the major highlights of the film.   

By the end of the film, the psychotic breakdown and the end of middle aged Howard, destroyed by the younger generation, just signifies the end of an era and the beginning of social mass media corruption.  It’s passing the torch in the most brutal and ugly way imaginable.  

Paddy Chayefsky’s screenplay says it all, and Sidney Lumet’s direction has created a hardcore telling of the fall of American mass media, and the prophetic messages in this film from 1976 are startling.  I can’t begin to stress what an amazing, brillaint film this is.  If you have Netflix, it’s available on Instant viewing.  By all means check it out.  I hope to say more about this film later on.  In fact, I guarantee with more viewings, I will have more to say about this.  Do yourself a favor and see this film.  It’s a hilarious film.  It’s a powerful film.  And it couldn’t be more relevant to the world we live in today.

              

 

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