I'm mad as hell, and I'm not gonna take it anymore!
Network is an intelligent, biting satire on contemporary television, and the societal transition from the radical '60s to modern materialism. Nominated for 10 Academy awards, it won 4, and was as important a film as a comedy can be. If you like your comedy really dark, read on.
Sidney Lumet (Prince of the City, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, 12 Angry Men) delivers one of the best of his many great films. I consider him one of the great directors, but the better-known Martin Scorcese has overshadowed him. Both have a similar tone in many of their films, but Scorcese has gotten a bit more press, despite the many Academy award nominations Lumet has gotten. He is known to get the best performances out of his actors. He certainly did here, and Peter Finch (Lost Horizon, Sunday Bloody Sunday) won the Oscar for Best Actor (posthumously, as he died just after the film's release) as the mad newsman Howard Beale, Faye Dunaway (Thomas Crown Affair, Chinatown, The Two Jakes) won Best Actress as Diane Christensen, the hard-bitten programming director, and Best Supporting Actress for Beatrice Straight (Poltergeist), playing the cheated-on wife. Of course they had great material, which won the Best Screenplay Oscar for writer Paddy Chayefsky (Altered States).
This film goes a long way to describe the blurring of the lines in television news between journalism and entertainment. In fact it exposes it completely while satirizing the hell out of it. Howard Beale (Finch) is an aging, hard-drinking widower and news anchor who is losing his ratings, and as it turns out, his mind. When he is fired, and given 2 weeks notice by his friend and producer Max Schumacher (William Holden, Stalag 17, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Casino Royale), Beale announces on the air that since he has nothing left to live for without the show he plans to blow his brains out on national TV one week hence, which he is sure will get great ratings.
The apathetic news crew almost doesn't even notice. But they do indeed notice, and Beale is fired. However, Beale begs to be allowed to apologize on the next broadcast from a prepared statement, and his old friend Max allows him. Beale instead goes off on a tangent ranting, and has now endangered Max's job as well. The stumbling network, called UBS, has been bought out by a new corporation, and the new owner's hatchet man Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall, Deep Impact, The Apostle, Phenomenon), who has been looking to axe the news division already, is primed to fire Max. But amazingly, the ratings go up from Beale's rants, and Diane Christiansen (Dunaway), devises a scheme to keep Beale on the air as the "Mad Prophet of the Airwaves."
Her ideas are cynical and radical to say the least. Her other programming idea comes from seeing raw footage of a bank heist taken by the robbers themselves, the Ecumenical Liberation Army (a copycat group of the Symbionese Liberation Army, even with their own kidnapped heiress), and deciding to devote a prime-time series to dramatizations of a new terrorist crime of the week by the group, called "The Mao Tse Tung Hour." Later scenes showing the communist and other left wing radical group members negotiating over distribution rights with the studio suits is a clever contrast of the '60s' idealism and the modern business of media. Meanwhile, Beale is slipping farther into insanity, and his friend Max is worried about him.
The studio only cares about ratings though, and fires Max lest he interfere with their financial issues by getting Beale some much-needed psychiatric help. In a well played sub-plot, Max has already begun an affair with Diane, which leads to a full-blown marital upheaval, all according to Diane's script; as she thinks of television every second of the day, even while making love. Things degenerate on the news set to the point where Beale is now the ranting anchor with a sideshow cast of soothsayers and such. I'm going to stop off here, but this is extremely well written satire and comedy, though dark as ink it be.
The disc looks extremely good considering the age of the film. The 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer shows surprisingly few nicks, scratches, and no digital artifacts. Colors are well saturated, and black levels are as dark as the comedy. The other side of the disc contains the pan and scan version.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The sound isn't quite on par with the video. The mono track is a bit harsh, but everything is intelligible. At least the mono is two-channel. The extra content is fairly limited as well, consisting of production notes on an eight-page booklet inside the case, the original theatrical trailer, and an interactive quote game. There is an Easter egg of a text explanation of how the Nielson ratings work. I would like to see this movie, so well renowned, receive special edition treatment.
This is one fine film, and special edition or no, has a fine transfer and is worthy of purchase. Those unsure should rent it first, but I do not believe they will be disappointed. And a message to our "Jury of One" columnist Rob Traegler: at least in 1976 Faye Dunaway's teeth looked just fine.
The film and its cast and filmmakers are all acquitted without dissent. MGM is commended for at least giving this fine film an anamorphic transfer, but is reminded of the need for a special edition in the future.
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