This summer, I saw “Network” for the first time. Then I saw it again. And again. And again. Sidney Lumet’s incendiary 1972 newsroom satire has become inescapable, lingering in my thoughts just long enough to necessitate a rewatch. Every time I return to it, I feel like I’m strapped into a roller coaster that only plummets downward. That feeling of intense, unnerving, endless vertigo is an inevitable part of watching “Network,” a movie that stretches and twists its depraved fantasy until it resembles reality. For as verbose and esoteric as it is (we’re talking about the movie that Aaron Sorkin cites as an inspiration for becoming a screenwriter), there’s hardly a dull moment in Paddy Chayefsky’s Oscar-winning script.
I find myself going back to “Network” so ravenously that it plays out like several types of movies packed into one. The first act is innocent and reserved compared to the rest of the movie, a dark examination of broadcaster Howard Beale (Peter Finch, “Sunday Bloody Sunday”) and his frank consideration of suicide during his last live broadcast before retirement. When he announces this intention on the air and reinvigorates ratings for the financially floundering news division, “Network” becomes an entirely different kind of movie. It loses all notions of morality or order, if it ever had them to begin with. It becomes a story uniquely of the ’70s, a nightmare of gasoline prices, generational schism, stagflation and obscene corporate politics. What I find remarkable about the rest of the movie is how easily it pulls me into its orbit. I buy into the absurdity time and time again not because I want to — I simply can’t help myself. If “Network” is all one big joke, then I want in on the punchline.
The transformation of “Network” into a hypothetical hellscape happens so fast you might miss it. Experiencing this for the first time is akin to falling off a cliff. The movie is confidently going somewhere unpredictable and you are powerless to stop it. Howard himself is an indicator of this shift, turning from a past-his-prime broadcaster pushed out by the network to the company’s hottest product, a “latter-day prophet denouncing the hypocrisies of our time,” as he is ultimately known. “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” he complains. And America complains with him, literally opening their windows and yelling this token remark into the thunderous night.
But the far more compelling character to arise from the film’s turn to violent sensationalism is head of programming Diana Christensen, played by Faye Dunaway (“Bonnie and Clyde”) in one of my favorite performances ever. In an office of crusty aging male executives, Christensen is far and away the most vibrant element of the movie. Experiencing her taking advantage of Howard’s explosion of viewership is purely satisfying. She is beautifully neurotic and unforgiving, planning three, four steps ahead for every possible outcome of her ambition. She moves her coworkers, even the higher-ups of the network, around like chess pawns both physically in the newsroom and structurally in the corporation, all of these razor-sharp calculations constantly apparent in Dunaway’s disposition.
If the first and second acts have sent us off the rails and into the abyss, the third act is where “Network” jettisons its audience into the roiling lake of fire at the bottom of the pit. It’s hard to comprehend exactly how grim the narrative turns. This is where multiple viewings have allowed me to internalize the sheer scope of the carnage. When we learn what the title “Network” is actually referring to — a web of corporate cosmology, dollars that control the world, the death of the individual — the movie becomes a little too prescient for comfort. Of course, we learn all of this through Ned Beatty’s (“Toy Story 3”) legendary and terrifying monologue for which he won a Best Supporting Oscar. It’s impossible to witness this scene and ignore its logic. “There is only IBM and ITT and AT&T and DuPont, Dow, Union Carbide, and Exxon. Those are the nations of the world today,” Jensen preaches. A possible reading of this line and “Network” as a whole is as a compact time capsule, starting with its feet firmly planted in the ’70s and ending in a bleaker, more modern era.
As damning as the finale of “Network” is, both to the monstrous corporations of the world and the wicked populism that fuels cable news, it’s all one big joke. It’s little more than a playlist of worst-case hypotheticals, cycled to the point of insanity. The movie fearmongers, it coaxes one into its carefully spun half-truths. By the end, it may be hard to know exactly what’s real. That’s why I haven’t been able to keep myself away from the movie. “Network” has an iridescence in its commentary: It’s satire and reality mixed irreversibly together. This flexibility makes the film a thrilling, enigmatic rewatch. And I know that for all the certainties I attach to its meaning, satirical or otherwise, the next time I watch it I will be just as unsure as I was the first time.