An Appreciation – Network
This level of humor is counteracted by an equal amount of dramatic tension. One of the major dramatic story arcs is the love triangle between Max, Diana, and Max’s wife Louise (Beatrice Straight). Beatrice Straight won a supporting actress Oscar for her performance, which lasted just under six minutes of screen time. Yet, we come to find that she is the moral center of the film; she is the one honest and true person within a sea of people who are not, and her performance is so moving that we feel her effect even without seeing her. In turn, the relationship between Max and Diana is one full of dramatic tension. What starts out as an act of passion quickly disintegrates because of the opposite morals that each of them has. Max knows that what he is doing is wrong, and begs Diana to realize what she is doing. But she is all-consumed, she has become one of the “humanoids,” and as a result, she cements the fate of whatever relationship they may have had.
Another serious element worthy of note is how literal the film is in terms of stating its theme. The film does not dance around the idea of how quickly the world has become globalized through media and big business. It presents its message starkly: money has taken over the world. This is exemplified in one of the best scenes of the film, where Howard meets with the network’s executive chief, Arthur Jensen (Ned Beatty). In a dramatic, over the top, and perfect performance by Beatty, his Jensen pounds down the point that Howard lives in a world run by corporations and brand names. There are no nations, there are no governments, there are no peoples—all that remains is money in all of its forms. To Jensen, it is what makes the world go round; everything else is irrelevant. This is an amazing scene, set in a darkly lit room with two people on opposite ends of a long table, but is tremendously effective. Beatty was a last minute call for casting, and was reported to have been very nervous, but his powerful performance in this one scene is representative of everything that the film is trying to say.
Paddy Chayefsky’s script is one that should be referenced and studied for all writing and acting students. This is one of the best-written of all films, winning an Academy Award, and it is a script made specifically for actors. I say that because nearly every piece of dialogue in the movie is written as a monologue. Every major character in play has at least a handful of very long monologues to present. Each is written with sharp and crisp wordplay, and strikes at the heart of what each character is trying to express. We remember almost all of them: Howard’s long diatribes about telling viewers to yell out of their windows about how sick and tired they are, or Diana’s speeches about putting and keeping Howard on the air. Then there is Louise’s moving scene when Max tells her about his affair with Diana, fierce and heartbreaking simultaneously. And of course there is Jensen’s speech to Howard, as mentioned earlier, beautifully over the top and striking with its message. This is an amazingly written movie by Chayefsky, and it deserves all the praise that it receives.
Yet, the script would not have been as regarded if it weren’t for the actors who perform its lines. All of the actors here share the spotlight, and make the very most of their time on screen. William Holden, the great actor of great films like The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Sunset Boulevard (1950), and The Wild Bunch (1969), brings a level of class to his performance. His character is the center of a whirlwind of dwindling moral values; he yearns for the journalism of the past and fears what the future will bring. Faye Dunaway (yet another Oscar winner) is a ball of energy as Diana. She has a straightforward and enigmatic attitude with her performance; she won’t allow anything to get in her way. In the end, during the breakup scene with Max, Dunaway’s performance makes us pity Diana not so much because she’s a sympathetic character, but because we realize that she has gone down a path from which she cannot return. Robert Duvall is splendid as the wormy and greedy Frank Hackett; his character doesn’t feel for anyone else except for himself, and as soon as he tastes success he becomes addicted. And then, of course, there is Peter Finch, who won a posthumous Oscar for his portrayal of Howard Beale. This is a scene-chewing, foaming at the mouth kind of role, requiring Finch to scream, yell, shake with nervous energy, and even faint. Yet, Finch accomplishes his acting with amazing believability. We become glued to his performance, just how viewers would be glued to their own screens watching this mad man. It is very sad that Finch passed soon after making this film, but what a great performance to go out on.
Sidney Lumet, to put it simply, is one of the best and arguably most underrated of all the directors. When lists of great filmmakers are compiled, his name deserves to be mentioned. He started out working in the theater, and those experiences allowed him to be a director that can bring out the very best in his actors. This is seen in films like 12 Angry Men (1957), The Fugitive Kind (1960), The Pawnbroker (1964), and Murder on the Orient Express (1974). His Dog Day Afternoon (1976) contained one of Al Pacino’s best performances, and The Verdict (1982) had one of Paul Newman’s best. Prince of the City (1981) is a great New York cop drama and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007) is probably the best film that no one talks about. His book Making Movies is a great read into the style and approach of his directing. The key to Lumet’s style is that he does not have one—you cannot easily tell that a film was directed by him. He allows his camera to be placed where it needs to be to tell its story; he doesn’t have a story adapt to his liking, but rather adapts his filming technique to the tone and liking of the story itself.
Network is one of the Lumet’s very best films, a contemporary story that continues be more significant as more time passes. It tells how the urge for money and success overshadows morality within the context of mass media. The film warns that the more we allow sensationalism to be the main attraction in our society, the more the danger of doing so increases as well. Notice how the film, without specifically telling us, gradually shifts from a network of professional-minded businessmen into an insane asylum filled with nut cases with itchy trigger fingers. The lengths that these executive producers go to get what they want on television is frightening, but what’s scarier is the lengths they go to get what they want off of it.