Judge Daryl Loomis is mad as hell, but he'll probably just take it like he always does.
There is no America. There is no democracy. There is only IBM and ITT and AT&T and Dupont, Dow, Union Carbide, and Exxon. Those are the nations of the world today.
Enough ink has been spilled about Network to choke a team of horses, but it doesn't change the fact that Sydney Lumet's (Serpico) seminal work of satire becomes more relevant with each passing year. Now, in the wake of the great director's death, here we are again to look at one of the great films in cinema history, this time in a glowing Blu-ray package.
Facts of the Case
UBS news anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch, Gilbert and Sullivan) has seen his ratings slide over recent months and has just received his pink slip from the network. He won't just be forced into retirement, though, so the next night on his broadcast, he declares that, in a few days, he'll kill himself on the air. An audacious claim, no doubt, but the ratings skyrocket. Network exec Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway, Chinatown) sees the numbers and has a great idea. She will change Beale from an anchor to a pundit and turn the news into entertainment. It works; the numbers are huge and the network's getting rich, but just how far can this stunt go before the integrity of the news desk has been destroyed.
I sure do wish that Network still played like an absurd satire; it would mean that our news media had not turned into a collection of Glenn Becks and Nancy Graces, and reporting hadn't become an all day sensationalist ratings grab. It might even mean that we could trust the information we get off the television. That's not the case, though, and now that the exaggerations of writer Paddy Chayefsky (Altered States) are no longer exaggerated, it's a little harder to see the humor in the film. The direction the media has gone may not have surprised the writer, but I imagine the sheer precision of his predictions would. Howard Beale preaching politics on a revolving stained glass set is a gimmick out of Glenn Beck's dreams. Corporate involvement in media is so ubiquitous that a popular sitcom like 30 Rock can feature a running gag implying their corporate parent is little more than a porn peddler. The only thing that seems so absurd at this point is that the public would stick their heads out their windows and yell something; instead, they're checking their email.
While the discussion of Chayefsky's prescience is infinitely interesting to me, Network would still be a masterpiece without any of that. As a satire, the film is note perfect. Chayefsky's based the script in his own network television experience; the jargon and banter feel exactly right. This is the only case I know of in which the screenwriter gets the "by" credit for a film, but Lumet understands that, at least for this film, the dialog is, by far, the most important thing about this film. Both worked in live television in their early years and that spontaneous, yet still tightly composed feel is perfectly realized and the exact right tone for the film.
The power of Network may come from the words, but the performances are needed to pull them off and, in every case top to bottom, the actors come through brilliantly. All three leads are perfect. Peter Finch, in his final role, has no problem being a cranky old crank, ranting about whatever. William Holden (The Wild Bunch) puts in one of the best performances of his career as Boyle's friend and a mainstay of the industry. Most strongly, Faye Dunaway stands up against her venerable counterparts to deliver the most memorable performance of the film. She exudes the mean ruthlessness of a corporate stooge while still conveying the humanity and caring to fall into a foolish fling, all with a presence that is the most memorable of her career. Add to all of that phenomenal supporting performances from Robert Duvall (The Godfather), Ned Beatty (The Incredible Shrinking Woman), and Beatrice Straight (Poltergeist), whose four minute turn netted her an Academy Award, and this is an incredible cast doing truly great work.
For this fantastic film, Warner Bros has delivered a very good Blu-ray disc. It's a technical upgrade for sure, though the extras are identical to those on their 2006 SD release. The image is excellent, with near perfect clarity and a natural grain structure. The colors are gorgeous, the clarity and balance are perfect; the picture could really look no better. The sound isn't quite as strong. As a mono mix, it's perfectly good, with clear dialog and no noise; there's just not much that's coming out of a single speaker. I wouldn't want a broader remix by any means, but there's only so much that can happen in mono.
No matter that the extras are a comprehensive repeat of the supplements on the old disc, this is one of the most interesting and informative slates of extras that you'll find. Sydney Lumet was one of the most astute directors I have ever heard speak on the art, and his commentary for Network is as solid as one could want. He goes into serious depth on his thoughts of the film, both in the production and its reputation. Lumet has incredible recall about minute details, and it's a great listen. Also fun is Chayefsky on an appearance on Dinah!. It may only be Dinah Shore and it isn't great television, but the serious topics the writer tries to discuss with the entertainer clearly marks a difference in television in 1976 and today. An hour long interview with Lumet, conducted by noted Turner Classic Movies sycophant Robert Osborne, is the only feature on the disc that I don't love. I've never been a fan of the TCM host and don't like his interview style. Though Lumet is always a valuable listen, many of the stories are repeated and there's a little too much glorification. The best extra on the disc is one of the finest making-of documentary you're likely to watch. This six-part look at the film delves into every aspect of the production, from the concept to the acting to the legendary Walter Cronkite himself taking us through the process.
Network is one of the great ones. In both production and philosophy, the film is near perfect and features one of the single best screenplays ever committed to film. It deserved every award it got and many that it didn't. On Blu-ray, it may not be a revelation, but it is a worthy upgrade.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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