Director: Sidney Lumet
Screenplay: Paddy Chayefsky
Producers: Howard Gottfried, Fred C. Caruso
Starring: William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Robert Duvall, Peter Finch
BBFC Certification: 15
Duration: 121 min
Sidney Lumet is rarely mentioned among the greatest directors of all time and yet the plethora of amazing films he turned out cannot be ignored: 12 Angry Men (1957), Serpico (1973), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), The Verdict (1982) and Running on Empty (1988) to name just a handful. Lumet’s absence from the pantheon of directorial masters can be explained by his reliance on strong material and excellent actors rather than a consistent, recognisable signature style. He is often seen as the glue that holds together the film’s main attractions rather than the auteur whose signature is indelibly scratched at the foot of the screen. There is an element of truth in this and yet I feel Lumet has been sorely underrated, especially in regard to his ability to draw amazing performances from his actors and keep extremely wordy, cerebral scripts constantly engaging on an emotional level. Lumet never worked on a wordier, more cerebral script than Paddy Chayefsky’s Network. In fact, it’s hard to imagine a wordier, more cerebral script than Paddy Chayefsky’s Network!
Although it has maintained its critical acclaim, Network has faded a little from public consciousness. It came out in a very strong year for films, sharing the Best Picture Oscar nominations with the likes of All the Presidents Men and Taxi Driver but losing out to the mumbling, tedious Stallone hit Rocky! Unlike those other three films, Network tends to be a movie that is largely known about by film-buffs. But the influence of this classic is frequently apparent in the very best writing of today, not least in the work of Aaron Sorkin. One of my all-time favourite TV writers, Sorkin has often acknowledged the influence of Network on his classic TV shows Sports Night (1998-2000) and The West Wing (1999-2006), as well as an overt reference in the opening episode of his surprisingly disappointing Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (2006-2007). Sorkin again tipped his cap to Network when he picked up his well deserved Oscar for his The Social Network (2010) screenplay.
Paddy Chayefsky has come to be respected as one of the great screenwriters of all time and Network is often seen as his crowning glory. A savagely satirical look at the ruthlessness of television networks locked in ratings battles, the film is mainly set in boardrooms, offices and studios and is filled with technical TV blather about ratings and shares which will undoubtedly lose the more impatient viewer early on. But this constant chat becomes riveting as the persistent viewer comes to realise that these cold statistics are the driving force behind the often reprehensible actions of the characters. Ratings are everything and, comparatively, human lives are expendable.
Network focuses mainly on three characters: head of news programming Max Schumacher (William Holden), news anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch) and entertainment producer Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway). All three of these characters have their flaws and the professional and emotional fallout when the three collide is the meat of Network. Schumacher and Beale are both in the Autumn of their years after distinguished careers, facing competition from ambitious young go-getters like Christensen. When Beale learns that he is to be fired due to declining ratings, it’s the beginning of a slow and ever-more terrifying decent into madness. Schumacher’s instinct upon witnessing this mental disintergration is to protect his old friend while Christensen’s (and, thanks to her powers of persuasion, pretty much everyone else’s) is to exploit him for the all important ratings. So begins a power struggle in which the ever more insane Beale is used as a pawn in a game whose ending is impossible to predict.
I’m reluctant to say too much more about the plot of Network because if you manage to come to it without knowing anything about where the story goes, it has the power to frequently shock and surprise the viewer with its many twists and turns. Instead of giving anything away plotwise then, let’s instead focus on the many other things that make Network great. Chief among these must be Chayefsky’s script, which is truly one of the great screenplays of all time. Almost every main character gets at least one long, impressive monologue and even some of the supporting players get their time in the spotlight with one big scene and then out. Some critics found the script a little too busy and overstuffed for its own good but Lumet handles these great wodges of dialogue brilliantly, keeping everything moving along at a considerable lick and deftly flitting between the emotional and professional lives of the characters to create an unusually full picture of their existences.
Immeasurably important in bringing these characters to life are the uniformly excellent cast and Network broke several records for Oscar nominations and wins in the acting catergory. It was one of only 9 films to ever be nominated for 5 acting awards and one of only 2 films to win 3 of those acting awards (the other being A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)). Beatrice Straight, who won the Best Supporting Actress award for her gut-wrenching performance as Schumacher’s wife, gave the shortest performance ever to win an Oscar (she is on screen for a total of 5 minutes and 40 seconds) while Ned Beatty’s apocalyptic performance, nominated for Best Supporting Actor, lasts even less time. Finally, Peter Finch’s unforgettable turn as Beale became the first ever posthumous Oscar to be awarded when Finch died between the film’s release. The only other posthumous Oscar eventually went to Heath Ledger for his performance in The Dark Knight (2008).
That’s a lot of statistics to take in and this review is as in danger of getting lost in technicalities as Network sometimes seems to be. But I feel it’s necessary to look at that amazing list of record-breaking achievements as a preface to just how top-notch the acting in Network really is. Peter Finch’s turn as Howard Beale, all flailing limbs and messianic denunciations, is the most indelible of all the film’s performances but William Holden’s subtle, sympathetic Max Schumacher is perhaps even better. As a married man becoming obsessed with a far younger woman, Schumacher comes across as somewhat pathetic and selfish but Holden balances this with his ethical heroism and dignity in his professional life. His final scenes with Dunaway are some of the best written moments I’ve seen in any medium and Holden gives them exactly the right amount of gravitas to make them believable despite their convoluted premise. Dunaway, in an unforgivingly cold and ultimately evil role, taps into exactly the right balance between professional brilliance and emotional dearth. Diana Christensen’s inability to function in any context other than the cutthroat world of network television is encapsulated in Dunaway’s superbly calculated performance which culminates in the smallest of glimpses at the unhappy woman hidden so deeply underneath.
With such a remarkable trio of lead performances, one might be tempted to assume that the supporting cast matter little. But while Finch, Holden and Dunaway undoubtedly have what it takes to carry the film between them, Lumet has populated the smaller roles with equally extraordinary performances. Beatrice Straight, in her sole scene, turns in the most heart-rendingly believable representation of emotional hurt I’ve ever seen. By contrast, Ned Beatty’s memorable “The world is a business” speech, is deliberately over the top. The overacting, however, is crucial to the story rather than an artistic decision and Beatty manages to balance the requirements of the script with a believably megalomaniacal quality which earned him the only Oscar nomination of his career. Often forgotten in a cast where practically everyone was Oscar nominated, is Robert Duvall who is gloriously detestable as the hot-headed boss Frank Hackett. If ever there were a cast who epitomise the Stanislavskian conceit that “there are no small parts, only small actors”, then it is this one.
Network represents one of those rare moments in film where absolutely everything seems to come together. Strong direction, scripting, story, characters and acting all play a part in making it one of the greatest movies ever made and it’s so densely packed that it demands to be seen again and again, the initial shock value of where the plot takes us replaced on subsequent viewing by an ability to luxuriate in the amazing dialogue and performances. Too numerous in its achievements to pin down to any single genre, Network could be described as a black-comedy, a drama, a satire, even a thriller at a push. It’s best not to have any expectations because Network is ultimately a singular narrative and filmic experience. Just see it and improve the ratings of this most deserving of media sources!