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On November 27, 1976, MGM’s prescient Network hit theaters. The R-rated title, which went on to claim four Academy Awards, remains as relevant as ever decades after its release. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review is below:
Writer Paddy Chayefsky and director Sidney Lumet were only two of the diamonds in what was belatedly discovered to be the glittering crown of live TV in the early ‘50s. Chayefsky wrote dozens of scripts, Lumet directed hundreds of shows. Both, I think, have every reason to be appalled by the sterile jungle that TV has become. They know the power of the medium, its ability to influence minds. And they are also aware of the behind-the-scenes power plays to control this medium for corporate profit and private gain.
And that is at least one theme of their Network, which is certainly the most provocative and abrasive movie since All the President’s Men. The names may have been changed and incidents altered, but no one within sniffing distance of Madison Avenue will have the least bit of difficulty with identifications. But basically, Network is far more than a titillating roman a clef.
Chayefsky, in his righteous wrath, is looking at an industry that has the potential to inform and instruct, but wastes its seed on sitcoms and game shows. More seriously, he is looking at an industry that has the power to strip each of us of precious individuality, and mold us into acquiescent members of a fascist state.
As usual, Chayefsky reaches for a far-out plot complication and — also as usual — makes us believe in it. In this instance, it’s a veteran newscaster (Peter Finch), about to be fired, who one night admits on the air that all of his news is “bullshit,” and who informs his listeners that next Tuesday, he will commit suicide on the 6 o’clock news. The show’s ratings soar.
The suicide never takes place but — very much as in Frank Capra’s Meet John Doe — the citizenry rallies to his support. Like John Doe, this is a populist film; but Chayefsky is far too conscious of television’s manipulators to permit the easy and improbable finale that marred the Capra movie. Finch is shot dead, on camera, because his ratings have been slipping.
But there is another difference between John Doe and Finch’s Howard Beale. John Doe was a sane man pushed to the brink, while Beale is probably certifiably insane, but exploited by the network so long as it suits their purpose.
There is a marvelous scene, played against a lime-green line of reading lamps evenly spaced on a long polished-oak table, in which the head of the conglomerate that owns the network (Ned Beatty) introduces Beale to the brave new world dominated by IBM, AT&T and Dow Chemical. It sends chills down the spine with its topical references to Swiss accounts and laundered money, and a world in which nationalism is being rendered meaningless by international cartels.
And Beale, with the blessing of his corporate chief, goes out to preach via the airwaves that the individual is nothing, a mere statistic whose hopes and ambitions have already been graphed on the actuarial charts of the insurance companies. His show begins to lose out in TV’s eternal ratings race, but not even the ruthless head of the network (Robert Duvall) can force him off the air. He is preaching the gospel as revealed by the international communications cartel that owns the network.
Intertwined with this is the story of the head of the network’s news division (William Holden), drawn as a cross between Ed Murrow and Fred Friendly, a man with too much integrity to make all the normal rat-race compromises. Holden meets more than his match in Faye Dunaway, a program executive of vaunting ambition and considerable talent. Her suggestions push his news show’s ratings to the top of the heap — after which she pushes him out of his job. But Holden, although married (to Beatrice Straight), is nevertheless drawn to this bright, charming, calculating woman. Even though she has cost him his job, he leaves his wife to share her apartment. (There is, incidentally, a marvelously comic scene in which, on their first weekend together, he wants only to make love while she wants only to talk business.)
It is interesting that in the first half of this two-hour movie, Chayefsky is concerned primarily with the relationship between Finch, the failed newscaster, and Holden, his boss and longtime friend who has to fire him. It’s tenderly, touchingly developed. But it’s the Holden-Dunaway relationship that dominates the second hour, with literally nothing of Finch’s private world visible once he has become his network’s stellar attraction. Which is unfortunate, since the essence of the entire piece is the dehumanization of individuals by the corporations they work for. For while there is every indication that Dunaway was able to advance so far so fast at network headquarters simply because she lacked all human values to begin with, her demoralization of Holden cannot be directly attributed to the corporation, and the question of why he would leave a seemingly happy home for her is never directly faced. It’s all a little too Harold-Robbins-egg blue.
What is faced, and what ties the whole film together, is Holden’s reason for finally leaving the girl. Beale’s death tells him that the individual really is important. “All I want out of life is a 30 share and a 20 rating,” says Dunaway at one point. For Holden, such elemental passions as joy, pain and loving are the simple necessities that keep him steady as he goes — and he goes with some of Chayefsky’s most pungent lines, comparing their life together to television soaps.
No performance is less than brilliant, with Dunaway particularly effective in the film’s showiest role. (By contrast, upstaged though it was, I also admired Wesley Addy’s quiet portrait of a top network executives moral disintegration as he shifts with the tides of change that engulf his studio.) Holden, Finch and Duvall, as always, contribute bed-rock-solid performances, and Owen Roizman’s shadowy photography gives the film a unique look and style. So does Elliot Lawrence’s score, which is heard only as source music except during the fore and aft credit sequences.
Whatever its flaws, Network is a picture that can stand on its own. And does. — Arthur Knight, originally published Oct. 12, 1976.
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