Last week, Future Tense (a program of the New America foundation) had a free screening of this classic film. Julia Turner, editor-in-chief of Slate magazine, introduced the film, then did a brief discussion/Q&A afterwards. I regularly listen to her on the Slate Culture Gabfest. Director Sidney Lumet and screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky claimed that the film was NOT meant to be a satire, BUT a reflection of what was really happening.
This is not a psychotic episode. This is a cleansing moment of clarity. I’m imbued, Max. I’m imbued with some special spirit. It’s not a religious feeling at all. It’s a shocking eruption of great electrical energy. I feel vivid and flashing, as if suddenly I’d been plugged into some great electromagnetic field. I feel connected to all living things. To flowers, birds, all the animals of the world. And even to some great, unseen, living force. -Howard explains to Max (after his on-air breakdown)
This film follows TV execs (at UBS, a fictional network) ready to do anything to boost ratings—incl. sacrificing journalistic values and cashing in on veteran news anchor, Howard Beale (Australian actor Peter Finch) who goes off-script during one night’s live broadcast. A young/ruthless Director of Programming, Diana Christensen (played w/ scenery-chewing gusto by Faye Dunaway), wants to exploit this for the good of UBS (and her career). After all, Howard’s rantings garnered high ratings (esp. for a news show). Howard is NOT fired, but given a new show; he quickly becomes a media icon, drawing millions of viewers to UBS and influencing their everyday behaviors.
Diana starts up a relationship w/ an older news producer, Max Schumacher (iconic leading man William Holden). Max is concerned about his old friend Howard’s mental health, yet also attracted to Diana’s energy and beauty. Diana also seems to have some sort of alliance w/ a higher-level exec, Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall). There is coldness, yet also sly humor, in Duvall’s performance. Lumet told Dunaway that he would edit out any attempts on her part to make her character sympathetic and insisted on playing her w/o vulnerability. This portrayal of a female on the up-and-up is problematic, esp. in out modern society, which Julia noted. Dunaway also has a GREAT wardrobe in this film; I esp. liked the books and coat (which we see in the reunion scene w/ Max on the street).
The movie won four Academy Awards and became a fixture of pop culture. Beatrice Straight (who plays Louise, the long-suffering wife of Max) has the briefest performance ever to win an Oscar (Best Supporting Actress). The well-known character actor- Ned Beatty (who plays Mr. Jensen)- remarked that actors should never turn down work b/c: “I worked a day on ‘Network’ and got an Oscar nomination for it.” Aaron Sorkin has claimed that Chayefsky, particularly his script for Network, were inspiration for his own writing. Roger Ebert added the film to his Great Movies list and said it was “like prophecy. When Chayefsky created Howard Beale, could he have imagined Jerry Springer, Howard Stern, and the WWF?” The audience I saw it w/ would ALSO add Donald Trump to that list; there were MANY (knowing) laughs!
 The scenes between old chums Finch and William Holden are some of the best written scenes in any American movie until the Coen brothers emerged. Finch is superb, superb! And Holden, at the end of a legendary career, gives a performance of such ferocious sincerity…
 The performances are just as brilliant as the social commentary. Each actor becomes so absorbed into their characters that you can’t even tell they’re acting. It feels like you’re watching these people in their daily lives, interacting and becoming more and more corrupt.
 This is certainly a film for the history books. Every connoisseur of film should be exposed to this movie at some point in their life. If you happen to be cynical, then you will love every minute of this movie as its stark view of life in the 1970’s (and onward) touches the hard of even the hardest of cynics. For those educators out there, GREAT film for classes on Media and Politics.