There are films which give us thrills and action; and there are films which subtly express character and explore relationships; and there are films that are absolutely dependant on the power of ideas and language; and just as there are progressively less and less of each of these kinds, the harder and harder it becomes to realise them as well. And then you get the films that do it all.
Network is one of the finest, a film that, as well as telling a story seemingly filled with utterly real people, also has a distinctive, savagely clinical character of its own. It charts the meteoric downfall of a fading network TV anchorman, and testifies to the merciless nature of the television industry and all those who would claw their way to the top of it. It features a brave and charismatically unlikeable performance from Faye Dunaway, a movingly flawed one from William Holden, several striking figures in the supporting roles, and of course a gargantuan, larger than lifetime star turn from the man centre stage, Peter Finch.
It took four Oscar wins – three for acting, a feat matched only by A Streetcar Named Desire, the other for Paddy Chayefsky’s original script. Ten nominations, all justified, including four for acting, plus Best Picture, Cinematography, Editing, and Direction – for Sidney Lumet (you know: Serpico, The Verdict, Dog Day Afternoon – that guy). It lost out in one of those others categories to All The Presidents Men, which also won Best Adapted Screenplay that year – 1976 was a pretty damn good one for writing.
But if you want real cinema, where the writing is something not just dependent on performance but articulated perfectly by it, then you have to come to Network. Watch Peter Finch as the manic Howard Beale, soaked, dripping and clinging to his desk like the edge of a life-raft, oblivious to the layers of betrayal that are unravelling behind the scenes and way beneath his heightened perceptions, delivering this much text – don’t read it, just marvel that the quality could match the quantity –
I don’t have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. It’s a depression. Everybody’s out of work or scared of losing their job. The dollar buys a nickel’s work, banks are going bust, shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter. Punks are running wild in the street and there’s nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do, and there’s no end to it. We know the air is unfit to breathe and our food is unfit to eat, and we sit watching our TV’s while some local newscaster tells us that today we had fifteen homicides and sixty-three violent crimes, as if that’s the way it’s supposed to be. We know things are bad – worse than bad. They’re crazy. It’s like everything everywhere is going crazy, so we don’t go out any more. We sit in the house, and slowly the world we are living in is getting smaller, and all we say is, “Please, at least leave us alone in our living rooms. Let me have my toaster and my TV and my steel-belted radials and I won’t say anything. Just leave us alone.” Well, I’m not gonna leave you alone. I want you to get mad! I don’t want you to protest. I don’t want you to riot – I don’t want you to write to your congressman because I wouldn’t know what to tell you to write. I don’t know what to do about the depression and the inflation and the Russians and the crime in the street. All I know is that first you’ve got to get mad. You’ve got to say, “I’m a HUMAN BEING, Goddamnit! My life has VALUE!” So I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window. Open it, and stick your head out, and yell, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this any more!”
– and though he rants it out at a machine-gun rate it still takes minutes to deliver and it is almost physically shocking, what it is to sit and let it wash over you. It hits you exactly the same way it would hit Beale’s audience; if you weren’t already dragged in by Network, you would be now. And there’s more of this to come, a rival to Beale’s mania in the form of Arthur Jepson’s hell-fire sales pitch, the crippling hammer blow that reduces Beale’s shattered sanity to billowing dust – and Ned Beatie’s performance here is amazing too, not just in the speech itself but that he actually rivals Finch’s masterful performance for power. Again, don’t read it: I want you to get up out of your chair, right now, and go and watch it.
You have meddled with the primal forces of nature, Mr. Beale, and I won’t have it! Is that clear? You think you’ve merely stopped a business deal. That is not the case! The Arabs have taken billions of dollars out of this country, and now they must put it back! It is ebb and flow, tidal gravity! It is ecological balance! You are an old man who thinks in terms of nations and peoples. There are no nations. There are no peoples. There are no Russians. There are no Arabs. There are no third worlds. There is no West. There is only one holistic system of systems, one vast and immane, interwoven, interacting, multivariate, multinational dominion of dollars. Petro-dollars, electro-dollars, multi-dollars, reichmarks, rins, roubles, pounds, and shekels. It is the international system of currency which determines the totality of life on this planet. That is the natural order of things today. That is the atomic and subatomic and galactic structure of things today! And YOU have meddled with the primal forces of nature, and YOU…WILL…ATONE! Am I getting through to you, Mr. Beale? You get up on your little twenty-one inch screen and howl about America and democracy. 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. What do you think the Russians talk about in their councils of state, Karl Marx? They get out their linear programming charts, statistical decision theories, minimax solutions, and compute the price-cost probabilities of their transactions and investments, just like we do. We no longer live in a world of nations and ideologies, Mr. Beale. The world is a college of corporations, inexorably determined by the immutable by-laws of business. The world is a business, Mr. Beale. It has been since man crawled out of the slime. And our children will live, Mr. Beale, to see that . . . perfect world . . . in which there’s no war or famine, oppression or brutality. One vast and ecumenical holding company, for whom all men will work to serve a common profit, in which all men will hold a share of stock. All necessities provided, all anxieties tranquillized, all boredom amused. And I have chosen you, Mr. Beale, to preach this evangel.
Network is a stunning film. There is no escaping the fact that almost everything it predicts has come to pass, word for word. The warning has gone unheeded, and the only thing left to wait for is the bloody viscera of death played out Live for our entertainment, while we the public scream on demand for change, but do nothing to cause or deserve it.