#10 — Network (Sidney Lumet, 1976)
I don’t think it’s quite right to say that all great films are timeless. I do think there are broadly translatable qualities to the very best works–things such as wit, grace, intellectual heft and emotional piquancy–that can ensure an eternal appeal even when a film is wedded to the era in which it was made. That conviction makes me somewhat reluctant to contextualize a film on the basis of its copyright date. I’m not entirely adverse to the practice, of course, and it’s especially useful to measure the insights of Network against the state of the media landscape when Paddy Chayefsky wrote it and then Sidney Lumet directed it. This is typically done to excuse stodginess in the storytelling or misguided judgments of the characters, shaped by antiquated notions of the way the world works. That’s absolutely not the case with Network. Considering its context only serves to illuminate the film’s remarkable prescience.
When Network arrived in theaters in November of 1976, HBO had only been around for four years and was aspiring to be considering TV rather than claiming it had reached a transcendent state. CNN was almost four years from flickering to life, and even the existence of PBS was demarcated in single digits. National television was effectively three broadcasting institutions: ABC, CBS and NBC. It was in the aura of that environment that Network introduced the saga of Howard Beale, a veteran newsman played with ferocious authority by Peter Finch, who won a posthumous Oscar for his efforts. Beale is told that he’s losing his anchor position at the network due to dwindling ratings, which is turn leads him to announce on air that he will commit suicide while the cameras are sending out a live feed. The sensationalism of that promise leads to more viewers, and the audience only grows as Beale delivers increasingly unhinged rants on his program, inspiring legions of followers to shove open their windows and scream their satisfaction into the night. At the time Chayefsky wrote the screenplay, this was the height of bleak satire. Now, it’s roughly the Fox News programming model.
Chayefsky’s language, and the corresponding worldview it represents, are so dangerously sharp that it’s almost as if the sprocket holes in the celluloid were punctured into existence by barbed wire. Lumet is the ideal interpreter of Chayefsky’s words, investing the entire film with his keen craftsmanship and no-nonsense plainspoken certainty that’s equal parts urban and urbane. The script demands a director committed to honoring it rather than caving in a competitive instinct to try and upstage it. That doesn’t diminish the value that Lumet brings to film. Quite the contrary: he knows exactly how to burrow into the prickly story, the volatile interpersonal relationships, the psyches that have been scraped raw by a brutish business. If there’s a lack of flashiness, that’s only in the service of opening up the story for greater potency. In that, he has wondrous acting collaborators, led perhaps by Finch, but also including devastatingly insightful turns by Robert Duvall, William Holden and especially Faye Dunaway, who earned her own Oscar for playing cunning executive Diana Christensen. The third Academy-honored performance was delivered by Beatrice Straight, who stills hold the record for shortest amount of screen time in an Oscar-winning performance, a distinction that might inspire cynical scoffing, at least for anyone who hasn’t actually seen what she does with her five-and-a-half minutes.
Even if Network didn’t accurately forecast the dire path mass media careened down, it would still be one of the finest films of the nineteen-seventies. Its astuteness is a fine talking point, but its artistry is far more profound than that. Wise, wicked and a harshly funny, Network has a effortless cinematic majesty well beyond its cautionary notes.