Loosely based on the on-air suicide of reporter Christine Chubbuck, Network opens as news anchor Howard Beale, played by Peter Finch, is sacked from the fictional UBS network due to poor ratings, and threatens to kill himself during a live broadcast. Needless to say, his ratings recover pretty well after that.
Finch is outstanding as the mad prophet of the airwaves, ranting and raving his way towards an Oscar. While certainly well-deserved, it’s typical of the Academy to award the bigger performance at the expense of fellow nominee William Holden, whose touching role as head of news Max Schumacher forms the emotional heart of Network.
It’s the scenes between him and Faye Dunaway’s unscrupulous head of programming Diana Christensen that pack the greatest dramatic punch, particularly their big argument towards the end; Dunaway bagged the film another Academy Award, as did Beatrice Straight for her short but moving performance as Schumacher’s wife Louise, which to date remains the briefest appearance ever to win an Oscar.
In fact, every turn is completely ingenious, from the very shouty Robert Duvall to the downright bizarre Ned Beatty, whose “corporate cosmology” monologue earned Network another Oscar nomination. Indeed, this film features some of cinema’s greatest acting and finest scenes.
But a great film starts with a great script, and Paddy Chayefsky’s is one of the best; it won an Academy Award, naturally. The screenplay takes no prisoners in its searing satire of the television industry, the news media and corporate America. No one is safe from such a funny but frightening view of the television landscape, which treats its characters with the same level of respect they hold for their audience and ethical practice; none.
Sidney Lumet directs with his usual energy and intelligence, painting a vivid, ambitious and rich vision of the media in bold browns and oranges. He even earned himself an Oscar nomination; are you keeping count?
Particularly terrifying is the extent to which Network has come true. It’s testament to Chayefsky’s genius that his vision of exploitative reality television and hysterical news broadcasting has passed into reality, which makes this film more and more pertinent with age.
The increasingly outrageous programming of UBS is eerily similar to the shrill hypocrisy of Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News. Or Noel Edmonds rallying against Wealden District Council to an audience of foam fingers. Or Glenn Beck pretending to cry.
Or The Jerry Springer Show. Or The Execution of Gary Glitter. Or Maury. Or The Boy Whose Skin Fell Off. Or Big Fat Gypsy Weddings. Or The Jeremy Kyle Show. Or Michael Jackson: The Live Seance.