Another great film from Sydney Lumet after his masterpieces of “12 Angry Men” of 1957, and “Dog Day Afternoon “ of 1975, comes a year later “Network “ in 1976. Like his other two great works that are explosive in content, discussion and arguments, this film is the ultimate of any outrageous film in exposing the capitalist system and its spokes agent, the television. As Lumet has believed himself that a movie should be beyond just entertainment, to enlighten and move audience, “Network” did more than any of his films and any others’ films to the point of shock and surprise. The film is a harsh critic of the capitalist system, lack of freedom of thoughts and speech, all brain washed in the American people’s mind by the media and on the top by television networks to this very day.
Lumet, a director actor who started off the Broadway, directed almost any great American and international actors from Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Susan Strasberg, Christopher Plummer, Sophia Loran, Marlon Brando, Joanne Woodward, Anna Magnani, Katharine Hepburn, Ralph Richardson, Rod Steiger, Sean Connery, Candice Bergen, James mason, Walter Matthau, Simone Signoret, Maximilian Schell, Vanessa Redgrave, Omar Sharif, Anouk Aimee, Al Pacino, Anthony Perkins, Susan Sarandon, Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Michael Caine, Paul Newman, Anne Bancroft, Gene Hackman, Jane Fonda, Dustin Hoffman, Melanie Griffith, Jack Warden, Andy Garcia, Lena Olin, Richard Dreyfuss, George C. Scott, Glenn Close, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke, to name some. He pulled out of Peter Finch, a not very popular actor who acted on the screen since 1930’s, the best of his life career that unfortunately did not last due to his premature death just a year later in 1977.
Network: A Film that will never happen on screen again
Howard Beale (Peter Finch), a news reporter of the TV network UBS is fired after 25 years of hard work due to his lower rating. He has become an alcoholic and after getting the news of his career ending in two weeks, he tells his old friend and the head of the news department, Max Schumacher (William Holden) one evening when drinking together that he is going to kill himself right on his TV show. His friend doesn’t take him seriously, but when he announces his intention the next evening during his live show, that he is going to blow his head off right in front everyone in his show a week later, it shocks all in the studio. Beale is fired on the spot by the network, but Schumacher intervenes so him to have a dignified farewell, if he apologizes on live television. The next evening, Beale goes on live again and this time while he explains that the night before he was in a state of madness, in another rant, he describes his life and life in general being bullshit. This unexpected use of foul language and open criticism of the American life and television that has always been accommodating the system again enrages the network heads, including Frank Hackett (Robert Duval) who fires both Beale and Schumacher as well, for letting Howard go back on live TV.
Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway), an eager but impersonal UBS producer from another department who is after making any show at any cost and already planning filming a communist guerrilla group in action of their bank robbery and terrorist attacks, notices Beale’s photos on the front page of any newspapers and that the network’s rating that had been declining recently, has spiked overnight due to his outspoken show. She offers Schumacher to help him with the Beale’s show and make it number one, and the network one of the top ones in the country. To achieve her ambitious plan, after Schumacher rejects her offer, she tempts him into a personal extramarital affair. At the same time she also convinces Hackett to give her Howard’s show to run as he has become the spokesperson of all frustrated and despair people of America, disclosing the hypocrisy of the system.
Hackett in his turn convinces the other heads of the network that since their TV is already in debt and struggling against competitors to approve Diana’s proposal and let Howard go on with his bullshit spreading show. But after a few shows, Howard’s novelty wears off and the show and network rating slides back down. Until one evening when Howard is late for his show and nobody knows of his whereabouts, he walks in the last minute into the studio, drenched from the rain in his pajama covered by a raincoat. He goes on live like that and starts screaming “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore”. He asks all the viewers to get off their seats, raise their hands and go to their windows screaming out that they are mad as hell and they cannot take it anymore. To the shock of everyone and the excitement of Diana, who out of joy calls him “son of a bitch”, people respond to Howard’s suggestion and scream their anger and despair out in the air throughout their windows all over the city and the country.
From now on Howard’s show becomes the most popular and a live show with the audience in the studio. With his popularity and power on TV, Howard takes all the control in his own hands. Coming up with another novelty, he announces live that he has heard a voice like a messiah’s telling him to reveal the truth to the people. Schumacher who believes Beale is now really insane and needs psychiatric treatment suggests to take him off the show, but Diana steps in again to take advantage of the situation. She justifies that a messenger or not, Howard holds now a spiritual power over the viewers and he should be left on as long as his show is good for the business.
From here on, through Howard and justification of Diana, Sydney Lumet unleashes the freedom of speech in the film on the screen in a country that such liberty has long been lost. Instead of other messengers who are usually religious and spiritual, delivering God’s messages to people, Howard like a modern prophet discloses all the lies and crimes of capitalism under the cover of fake democracy. He goes on and discloses why people losing their jobs and “the air is unfit to breath and people just passively sitting and watching TV” and don’t do nothing about their depression. He blows the lids off all the big corporations who just care about the profits and not the people. He discloses how the United States of America is in the hands of Arabs for their wealth.
Meanwhile Diana is also working on her other live TV show of the terrorist group to rob and kill on live television for the sake of profit and raising the network ranking. At the same time Howard continues with his open criticism of the system and also attacks the media and TV networks that they do not tell people the truth, but illusions and in another rant asking people to turn off their television sets even as he speaks. Then as his late usual at the end of his show, he faints and falls on the floor right in front of the live audience in the studio.
Schumacher has left his wife and children at the cost of his wife’s depression, living with Diana who has him only on the side, and mostly is still pursuing her ambitious business plans. Schumacher slowly realizes this bitter fact and protests to Diana that he has left all his life for her love, and their love is not a script, but she breaks to him that she does not know how to love. Finally he packs and leaves her, telling her that he feels sorry for her as he was the only real thing between her illusions and her nothingness.
Meanwhile Beale continues with his disclosure of the reality of American system and its democracy that how much Saudi Arabia holds the shares and controls many US corporations, lands, banks and even cities in the United States of America. The owner of the UBS, Arthur Jensen (Ned Beatty) in rage with frankness of Howard who has gone beyond his limit, not only putting his network and all the media at risk, but the system as a whole. He calls Howard in for a face to face meeting, taking him to his conference room, have him sitting on a chair at the end of a long desk. Shutting the blind, making the room only lit by the lights above the chairs of the long desk, himself standing at the top end, this time he goes on a rant attacking and disclosing the fact of the system like a messiah to Howard. He shouts at him that there are no nations, no Americans or Arabs, it’s only one international echo system of corporations of IBM, ITT, AT&T, DuPont, Exon, etc. There’s no democracy, it’s all business and dollars that run the world and it’s been always like that and will be always like this. He orders Howard that he has to disclose this fact to the people, but Howard in a bewildered trancelike surprise asks him why him. Mr. Jensen, like the other messiah who came to Howard before, reminds him “because you’re on TV dummy”!
Howard goes back on TV and like a manifesto announcement telling people that the United States and its wealth is not finished, but its original idea of freedom and democracy has finished. He reveals that the freedom and the ides of the individual has finished, “you, me and all are finished…We are not humans anymore but humanoids looking like humans, with no control or freedom”. Mr. Jensen is not willing to fire Howard, but the rest of the heads of the UBS, perceive him as a dangerous risk for the network and the whole media and the system, specially since his attack on Arabs who have invested billions of dollars in their business. So they all decide to wipe him out, and the heartless Diana comes up again with another TV script to kill him by her terrorist group live on the studio during his show. In the final evening and at the end of the film, as usual Howard is announced to go on live in front of a packed audience that two terrorist militias shoot him with several bullets, end his life, his show and his legacy of freedom of speech on TV.
In an America in the aftermath of the Vietnam War affected them gravely for 20 years (1955-1975) for nothing, but loss of many lives on both sides, Sydney Lumet after his outrageous film of “Dog Day Afternoon” that touches on the reality of his country, in “Network” he unleashes through his character Howard, disclosing the American system and its spokes agent, the media. In fact and at the time, Lumet while he was perhaps the only one in Hollywood, he was not the only one in the other media, as Christine Chubbuck, a TV news reporter in Florida had shot herself during a live broadcast of her show in a suicide attempt, two years before this film in 1974. A nation shocked by this live event, explained it as a conclusion to Christine’s suffering from depression and to this day her suicide footage has been locked up from the public viewing. But two recent films in 2016, a feature “Christine” starring Rebecca Hall as her by Antonio Campos, and a documentary “Kate Plays Christine” have relived her memory. As political and general as “Network” or not, Christine before her live suicide had mentioned “In keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in blood and guts and in living color, you are going to see another first attempted suicide”, then she draws a revolver and shooting herself in the right side of her head. Despite the disclaims of Lumet and the screenwriter, Paddy Chayefsky, about any adaptation of the film from the actual live event of Christine Chubbuck’s suicide, that was the reality of the American society in the 70’s that Hollywood until Sydney Lumet and his film acted in denial.
“Network” is not an exemplary Hollywood film for being so outspoken and outrageous going against its own system, it is one of the rare cinematic experience that had not happened before and perhaps will not happen again on the screen. The film is explosive without any real explosion or even shooting except at the end. It is all explosion of rage and frustration against a system that kills freedom of thoughts, speech and individuals for rating and profit. In a Hollywood era of mafia and gangster films of Godfather’s like, then science fiction films of Star War’s like, “Network” is a rare achievement that its legacy will remain in the history of cinema for ever. Although nominated for 10 academy awards, including the best picture and best directing, the film won only the awards for the best acting for Peter Finch who did not live to see the appreciation of his achievement. The film also won the best actress award for Faye Dunaway, best supporting actress for Beatrice Straight playing Schumacher’s wife, Louise, and the best original screenplay for Paddy Chayefsky. Sydney Lumet won the best directing award from Golden Globe along with Finch (won British film Institute award as well), Dunaway and Chayefsky who won again.
In closing remarks “Network” one more time will be redefined based on the following criteria:
- Originality: “Network” is the only original film that in a way made its own genre of a TV film with outrageous criticism of the media and the whole system at large, suicide attempt and assassination of a showman during live broadcast. This genre has not been repeated yet and probably will never be repeated on the screen again.
- Technicality: The technicality of “Network” is in its special script, thoughtful and masterful direction, and above all in its exceptional and explosive performance of Peter finch who did not live to see his only great achievement after a life career in acting.
- Impact Factor: The influence of “Network” could be seen in many aspects in the popular media from its famous quote of “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore” to other direct and indirect adaptations in one way or another. Unfortunately the film did not sell at the box office as did “Dog Day Afternoon” that sold $50 million from a budget of $1.8 million a year before, while “Network” sold $23.7 million from a budget of $3.8 million, that could be related to the American people’s interest still in action than a reality, political and eye opening film.
- Survival: “Network” has survived well to this very day for its realism rare seen in American cinema. It is still enlightening and eye opening and exemplary of a committed filmmaking to the social cause and not just for entertainment as Sydney Lumet believed.