Let’s Talk About… ‘Network’ (1976)

Film #63 in FilmExodus’s AFI 100 Movies.

Every week FilmExodus does a review/analysis of a different cinematic masterpiece from AFI’s 100 Movies 2007 updated list. For a complete overview and how you can participate, click here.

In Network’s most recognizable scene, veteran network news anchor Howard Beale (played by Peter Finch) declares on air “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” Beale is angry. He’s angry about the state of the world. He’s angry about the artifice of it, the materialism; he’s angry at the God in the Box – a failed god if ever there was one.

Beale’s world, the world of the 1970s, is a post-Nietzschean, post-Darwinian world in which the Christian God is dead (not only dead, but murdered by Man and his discovery of a new religion called Reason) and the new gods of materialism have failed to produce the utopia that was promised. Indeed, the opposite happened to some extent. From Beale’s perspective in the 70s, the horrors of the 20th Century had barely settled into the realm of memory and, in the case of the Soviet Union, were still ongoing.

Beyond the Cold War, the fear of mutually assured nuclear annihilation and all of the grander global catastrophes of the early 20th century, at a more local level, The United States was laboring under more than a few hurts of its own. Vietnam had finally drawn down to a close. Nixon had resigned in disgrace after the Watergate scandal. The economy was recovering from a two year recession, and the Oil Crisis of 1973 had only recently ebbed. Perhaps as icing on the cake, between 1971 and 1972, over 2,500 bombings occurred in the United States, most of which are thought to have been the work of domestic left wing radical terrorist groups, though few people were convicted or even prosecuted for the crimes.

Science and technology had freed the inhabitants of Beale’s America from the tyranny of superstition and organized religion, but it hadn’t been able to answer the age-old question “What is the meaning of life?”  Indeed, faced with a vacuum of meaning, not only had the new religion unleashed the calamities of chemical warfare, concentration camps, and totalitarianism on a populace ill-prepared to cope psychologically with these catastrophes, it had undermined the only institutions struggling to hold at bay the nihilism that had begun to settle into the void.

It is against these larger dramas that the smaller dramas of Network play out.

Finch’s Beale hogs the spotlight, and if people only remember one thing about Network, they remember his long, barely-coherent on-camera rants. But the other players give subtler performances and are more interesting to watch in that regard than Finch’s news anchor-cum-prophet.

William Holden’s and Faye Dunaway’s illicit relationship grounds the film and stops it floating off, tethered as it is to its loftier ideas. Every scene that these two actors share perfectly conveys the honesty of real human drama. Every facial expression, tick, and gesture takes on meaning. Every silence tells a tale.

One of the film’s finest performances is given by Beatrice Straight, Holden’s character’s wife of 25 years, and the woman he leaves for Faye Dunaway’s younger, power hungry Diana Christensen. The pain, the anguish, Straight’s Louise Schumacher feels at being rejected after so many years of loyal companionship, in such a cold and unfeeling way, by Holden’s Max is one of those seldom-seen moments in film that is as real as it is raw. Straight perfectly conveys, in a very short scene, the range of feelings – disbelief, dismay, anger, outrage, resolve – one is subjected to when betrayed by a loved one and it is devastating to witness. Incidentally, Straight won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress and holds the record for the shortest Oscar-winning performance. 

The lives of the characters that populate Network also reflect the broader theme of meaninglessness found elsewhere in the film. The characters strive for the ephemeral – power, passion, wealth, notoriety – and cling to the small successes that seem only to underscore the superficiality of their existences. They are petty, their aims shallow, as is the society and all its subsidiaries which undergird it.

Dunaway’s Christensen and Duval’s Hackett are intent on climbing the corporate ladder. They will do whatever is required of them to attain their desired positions. For Dunaway, this means betraying Holden’s Max. Max is looking for something that will remind him what the vigor of youth was like. Christensen fits the bill, and Max is willing to sacrifice his marriage for this fleeting chance to feel like he has his whole life ahead of him once again. Max’s cynicism runs so deep that he’s not even the least bit surprised when Dunaway tires of him and chooses her career over him.

These performances and the small dramas they act out are what make Network a fine film and worthy of your time, but its broader commentary on society are what make it essential viewing for all Americans.

Philosopher and writer George Santayana wrote in The Life of Reason “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Network reminds us of our history. It rubs our nose in it and tells us “Bad dog!” For this reason alone, Sidney Lumet’s film is important – maybe one of the most important movies of the last century. It reminds us – at a time when political moderates seem to be disappearing into the chasm that has grown between left and right, a time when political violence seems to be on the rise – that things have been worse. That things can be worse.

And, perhaps, that things can get better.