Would you believe that a mere 12 years after “Dr. Strangelove,” a welcome addition to the film canon would rise to the occasion of challenging the dominant satire of Kubrick’s masterpiece? Sidney Lumet’s “Network” has received countless accolades, including an induction into the National Film Registry, four Golden Globes, four Academy Awards, and the 64th position on AFI’s list of the top 100 films of the last century. But in spite of the film’s critical recognition, chances are you’ve never seen it.
The film begins with a tense discussion between executives at the fictional UBS television network and news anchor Howard Beale (Peter Fincher, “Sunday Bloody Sunday”), during which Beale is informed that he’ll be fired within the next two weeks due to his show’s poor ratings. Upon receiving this troubling news, Beale has a nervous breakdown and announces that he’ll be committing suicide on live television. When a subsequent series of outrageous events and mad rants by Beale brings him and UBS unprecedented popularity, he’s given his own prophetic talk show segment and coins his trademark phrase of aimless rebellion: “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”
The screenplay is airtight and the characterizations are spot-on — there’s enough subtlety in its political and social commentary to engage us intellectually, but there’s not so much abstraction as to encumber it with the hazy intent of so many art films.
For example, the politics of the show are all too evident in the relationship between madman Beale and his superiors. A wide viewer base of everyday Americans is enthralled with Beale’s antics — antics that give an illusion of the rebellion that they’ve long awaited to turn their worlds upside down and endow their lives with more drama, excitement and, ultimately, purpose.
What’s ironic about this whole façade of revolution is that at the end of the day, Beale is still subordinate to the whims of the network executives at UBS. Like a raving child, he is constantly scrutinized by his overseers. His free-spirited diatribes are brought to a shuddering halt after a dark-lit meeting with the network chairman — leaving no question as to who’s the boss of whom, and ending with Beale’s ominous observation: “I have seen the face of God.”
If an unforgiving look at the omnipotence of corporate America isn’t enough to whet your appetite for scandal, there’s also the melodrama of a heated affair. Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway, “Chinatown”), a producer at UBS, gets entangled with Max Schumacher (William Holden, “The Wild Bunch”), president of UBS’s News division. After a tumultuous relationship that leads Schumacher to leave his wife, Schumacher realizes he’s made a grave mistake and that his dalliance with Christensen has no potential for love — she is incapable of feeling, and talks only of business, even during sex. His last words to her are unforgettable: “You are madness, Diana, virulent madness, and everything you touch dies with you. Well, not me. Not while I can still feel pleasure and pain and love.”
Some critics lambasted the film for its preachy attitude by noting there isn’t a single character that isn’t featured in some long-winded tirade. But what a simplistic approach to criticism! Does the constant presence of dinosaurs preclude “Jurassic Park” from greatness, or the recurrence of gunfire in “Saving Private Ryan?” Motifs and themes in a film are essential to the conveyance of a deeper meaning, and the fact that the brand of satire found in “Network” relies on the theme of prophecy doesn’t diminish its greatness (or even its watchability) in the least.
“Network” is just as important to today’s college students as it was to film enthusiasts of the ’70s — in some ways even more so. It specifically points out the problems that face a generation raised by television through the relationship between the elderly Schumacher and the young Christensen. It highlights the gap between an era of thinking, feeling individuals and one in which preprogrammed imagery does all the thinking and feeling for us — so much so, in fact, that the whole gamut of human emotion feels clichéd and overused, and we’re no more cognizant of our bondage to corporate sensibilities than caged animals.