The life and career of long-serving news anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch) has taken a downward slide recently after his wife left him and he sank into drink, and his once high ratings have fallen to the point where his network, UBS, is forced to let him go. After being told he has just 2 weeks left on the air Howard broadcasts that in a week he will kill himself, live and during his show. Understandably he is immediately taken off the air by Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall), a rising executive surreptitiously taking over UBS from the inside, however Howard’s best friend and manager Max Schumacher (William Holden) is able to allow Howard one last show, for a chance at a dignified farewell, which Howard takes and runs with, instead offering up some frank and hard truths the general public eats up. Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway), UBS’ new head of programming, sees potential in Howard’s popularity, and adapts his news show to suit, but what is more the important, the ratings or their host’s sanity?
Network was nominated for me to watch by Vern of Vern’s Video Vortex, the As You Watch podcast and the Film Pasture. It’s a film that’s been on my mind for a long time but I’ve never gotten around to seeing. I actually watched about 30 minutes of so ages ago but fell asleep and never felt the urge to go back, but now I have. There’s one scene in Network that I think a lot of people are familiar with, and in fact a sound clip was taken from it as part of a regular feature on my own podcast before I took it over (I’ve since replaced it with a clip from Anchorman, because we all have our priorities), and now I can finally say that I’ve seen it, and the expression of being mad as Hell and not going to take it any more now means something to me, as does how much it was mentioned in the opening episode of Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom, a show I’ve gotten to love recently (tight up until I found out it had ended) and which I’d assumed had been influenced by Network far more than it would seem now I’ve seen it.
At it’s core Network is a satire on the media’s obsession with giving people what they want rather than what they need. UBS’ daily news programming begins as an hour of facts and important information, but the dry and statistical format loses viewers, so instead a more exciting, less informative approach is chosen, which makes a mockery of everything the news once stood for. In place of current events they have segments devoted to psychics and man-on-the-street pieces, all capped off with Howard’s increasingly rambling diatribes denouncing the very medium he is appearing on. That’s a story that could really go somewhere, however Network reduces its impact by watering down that core with sub-plots given equal screen time. There’s the unlikely relationship that develops between Diana and Max which never plays out in a satisfactory manner. We also see Frank’s struggles inside the company, and Diana pushing a new show idea about bank robbers who film themselves committing crimes – I never understood how they weren’t arrested. These myriad storylines weakened how strong that central conceit could have been.
However, as unfocussed as the plot seemed, every damn performance is phenomenal, particularly Finch, who thoroughly deserved his Best Actor Oscar, tragically awarded after his death making him the first recipient of a posthumous acting Oscar. Duvall is also killing it here, especially in a couple of rants he gives, so I was surprised to see he didn’t receive a Supporting Actor nomination, which instead bizarrely went to Ned Beatty, who doesn’t even appear in the film until over an hour in, in a scene where he delivers one line, until he returns 30 minutes later for one scene. It’s a terrific scene, perhaps the best in the film, aided by the glorious cinematography, production design and staging, but it’s not enough to give him a nomination over Duvall. At least put them both in there.
All in all, this may be the best actor film that I’ve ever found boring. It’s worth watching just for the performances and that one central story, but there’s a great deal of superfluous distraction around it to make this the classic I’d expected.
Choose Film 6/10