|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 16 May 2000|
‘Network’ is a film that has contributed to the popular vernacular. Everyone knows the phrase "I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!" Well, this is where the saying originated, along with the less known but equally pungent in context, "Because you’re on television, dummy." Paddy Chayefsky won an Oscar for his original screenplay and small wonder – it is not only rock-solid and ever-entertaining, but it hasn’t dated much in the quarter-century since its theatrical debut. Some of the technology has changed – the characters today wouldn’t be caught dead without cell phones and computers – but most of the points the film makes and the language it uses to make them haven’t dated at all.
‘Network’ is an erudite, articulate black comedy about what happens when aging network anchorman Howard Beale (Peter Finch) is canned. Rather than slipping quietly away, Beale uses a live broadcast as a forum to threaten suicide. Beale and his producer (William Holden) are both immediately dismissed – until the ratings go through the roof. Programming executive Diana Christiansen (Faye Dunaway) sees gold here. She gets Beale his old job back and makes sure he’s encouraged to rant about anything that angers him. This leads to an unholy alliance between programming and news, with the network covertly soliciting terrorist acts that it can run on a weekly basis. Of course, when Howard’s tirades become simply gloomy instead of fiery, that’s another matter …
In some ways, ‘Network’ has turned out not to be prescient. So far, the real-life Big Four haven’t gone out of their way to solicit illegal acts, although it can be argued that shows like ‘Cops’ get around the legal problems presented by presenting similar material from a different point of view. It’s also true that some of the hand-wringing that ‘Network’ engages in, speculating on what TV would serve up in the future, is misdirected. A weekly fictional series about criminals doesn’t necessarily mean the end of the world as we know it, unless ‘The Sopranos’ has hitherto undetected negative qualities.
However, Chayefsky hits a number of philosophical targets dead-on while keeping up a stream of intelligent, commanding patter. Director Sidney Lumet has a crisp sense of timing and a bone-dry sense of humor that serves the material very well. Dunaway, Finch and Beatrice Straight as Holden’s wife all got acting Oscars. Holden and Robert Duvall, as an icy corporate honcho, are equally good.
The most unusual feature of the ‘Network’ DVD is a deliberate, colorful pixel effect that is triggered by pressing menu keys other than "play." The packaging advertises a hidden menu page with "the history of the Neilsen ratings system," which turned out to be a little too well-hidden for this reviewer.
‘Network’ is not a movie to show off a sound system. Not only does it have few sound effects (a nice gunshot in Chapter 22 is the exception), but it has almost no score. Channel 15 has a good mixture of voices rising to cacaphony as a thunderstorm roils about. Chapter 13, at least on this reviewer’s system, takes a sudden dip during a dialogue scene, so that a few of Duvall’s lines sink to near-inaudible levels. There is also a gradual decline in Chapter 25, as Ned Beatty – wonderful as the network’s owner – lowers his voice to a whisper. It’s a dramatically effective piece of acting, but the DVD lets his voice bottom out.
‘Network’ is a movie that everybody should see. The extremes it depicts happily haven’t come to pass, but it’s still a powerfully smart, wickedly observant commentary on one of the few things everybody in our culture knows about: television.