Combustible Celluloid
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With: Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Peter Finch, Robert Duvall, Ned Beatty, Beatrice Straight, Wesley Addy, Darryl Hickman, Marlene Warfield, William Prince, Arthur Burghardt
Written by: Paddy Chayefsky
Directed by: Sidney Lumet
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 121
Date: 11/14/1976

Network (1976)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Good and Mad

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Sidney Lumet, Network is an odd comedy. It's unquestionably brilliant, and well researched. It knows a thing or two about the dirty business behind television. It's also a bit psychic, in its predictions that television would only grow more and more crass and exploitative (although, on the other hand, it could not have foreseen good things like "The Sopranos," "The Simpsons" or "The Wire"). But in other ways, it's not so psychic, as in Ned Beatty's speech about corporations taking good care of their workers, with good pay and stock shares, and no more misery and suffering.

In other words, Chayefsky says a lot here, and not all of it really meshes. It seems as if his hero is Max Schumacher (William Holden), the old-time television news guy who still tries to operate according to some standards of journalism. He's the only character with a real soul, and he's on his way out. He begins an affair with the up-and-coming executive Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway), who is callous and incapable of human feeling; she's only interested in doing anything to make a hit show, even if it requires hiring and negotiating with terrorists.

Robert Duvall also stars as Frank Hackett, and like Diana, he hasn't much real character; he's mostly focused on hanging onto his power and control; he's borderline psychotic. The film's focus, of course, is Howard Beale (Peter Finch). He's an old buddy of Max's, and he, too, is on his way out, but he's not much more than the sum of his speeches. As a TV anchorman, he's losing ratings and is let go with two weeks' notice. On the air he announces that he's going to kill himself. This leads to another appearance in which he says everything is "bullshit."

That, in turn, increases his popularity to the point that he is given his own show, and free reign to rant and rave about anything he wants. (He usually collapses, on air, after his furious rages.) But the thing that everyone remembers is the most quotable scene, in which Howard appeals to his audience to get up, go to the window, and shout "I'm as mad as hell, and I can't take it anymore!" Most people know and love that line, even though it's not specific what they're mad as hell about; neither is Howard. At any given point, he rages about oil prices, corporate takeovers, the brainwashing quality of television, and any other thing.

That's the secret to the film's immense popularity, though, is this angry, sudden blast of "truth" -- without being specific -- as if it had never been spoken aloud before. This is coupled with the feeling that the movie was so dangerous that no one was ever going to really get it. But it's actually danger packaged in a safe container. The same thing happened to American Beauty (1999), and it, too, was a huge success and also an Oscar winner. Both movies more or less blow off steam, but don't really offer anything constructive. It feels good to watch them, like a night of drinking. Despite the five Oscar nominations for acting here, these characters are targets of Chayefsky's; he doesn't care about them much and has only created them to step on them. At various points, Max talks about how he loves Diana, or how Howard is his old friend, but we rarely feel these emotions.

However, the movie has endured, and it's definitely fascinating, with meaningful or memorable chunks throughout. It was nominated for ten Oscars and won four. Dunaway won Best Actress. Beatrice Straight received Best Supporting Actress for basically a single scene: she plays Max's wife and throws a major fit when he announces that he's moving in with Diana. Likewise, Ned Beatty was nominated (Best Supporting Actor) for a single speech. This all says more for the respect and awe for Chayefsky's writing than for the performances. Finch won for Best Actor, even though he passed away of a heart attack just months before the Oscar ceremony. And of course Chayefsky won for his screenplay. Nominations included one for director Lumet, one for actor Holden, one for Best Picture, and nods for Cinematography and Editing. Rocky and All the President's Men were two of the evening's other big winners.

Warner Home Video has released Network on Blu-Ray, complete with the tagline "still mad as hell" on the box cover. It comes with a six-part making-of documentary, an interview with Lumet, a vintage interview with Chayefsky with Dinah Shore, and a commentary track by Lumet.

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