Network ★★★½

Elements of every rising generation like to think of theirs as an era of melancholy social decay at the hands of technology. Television and the internet both have been seen as media that crept upon the masses, exploding in an inevitable fashion only after it was too late to understand their effects on life as it was previously known. As such, watching Sidney Lumet’s Network (1976) is a valuable retrospect- evidence that such revelations have punctuated socio-technological breakthroughs for decades past. However, Network is not merely a commentary, it is a film that embodies the cynicism and anger that coursed through the America in the 1970s. Network, through a diverse cast of personalities and perspectives, aptly depicts the engine that ran the American media and its ultimate affect on the public ethos. This makes it doubly unfortunate that this invaluable and visionary social critique is encased in a less remarkable film. While Network’s cast is nearly impeccable and its writing is captivating, the film’s plot lies unjustified by weak story-telling techniques and an unsatisfactory level of character exploration.

Network begins with dry narration that provides a brief background for the film’s main subject, Howard Beale (Peter Finch). Beale, apparently a once-successful news anchor (although we never get to witness that phase) is fired as his ratings start to decline. Fed up with the state of his life at the hands of the system, Beale begins to use his remaining time on the airwaves to lambast the TV-addicted, isolated culture that has taken over the western world. Instead of pulling the plug, however, his financially struggling carrier network lets him keep the slot after an immediate surge in ratings. The rest of the movie documents Beale’s transformation into a hysterical but prophetic figure in the minds of his equally impassioned mass audience.

Beale’s presentation is central to some of the film’s main issues in connecting to the viewer. His “transformation” is near-meaningless, as he was never explored as a sane or relatable character (save for the cop-out introductory narration). As he descends further into madness, it’s easy for the audience to forget what little we had known about his past and his motivations.

Ironically, Howard Beale has less screen time than two of the other three leads, his closest friend, Max (played by William Holden), and the network’s programming director Diana (Faye Dunaway). Holden’s performance as an industry veteran reminiscing on the normalcy of the past serves as the audience’s point of entry into a film otherwise overcome with madness. Although giving a satisfying performance, his character had a tendency to become encumbered in a multitude of minor subplots that are begun, abandoned, and (sometimes) revived at odd times throughout the film. Dunaway’s character represents the cold, self-driven ambitiousness of a modern entrepreneur. Her rift with society through an inability to connect with others on an emotional level is one of the film’s most interesting and gratifying subplots. Filling out the leading cast, Robert Duvall plays Frank Hackett, a slightly less predictable variant of the fiery, utilitarian corporate archetype. These characters represent their perspectives through compelling performances, however the film’s method of conveying their respective messages is lost amongst the excessive amount of self-indulgent ranting that each one partakes in.

Herein lies Network’s greatest flaw. Howard Beale’s message of social decay and exasperation against the establishment is expertly articulated, but presented in such a fashion so as to be comparable to the very propaganda it speaks against. Obviously the content of Network’s message was, especially for its time, of the utmost value and necessity. However the lack of subtlety in the message, and the tendency of each character to fill out his or her persona through grand speech rather than gradual action curbs from the movie’s value as a work of art as opposed to a lecture. Beale’s message is preached throughout the film by Beale alone, marginalizing it to a thematic punctuation in the movie rather than an underlying message.

Network finds redemption in many areas including acting, tone, directing and writing. Its floundering execution may confound the audience, who is forced to juggle a series of trivial subplots while being hit over the head with the movie’s anti-TV morality trip. However the chaos admittedly helps cement the movie’s “Mad as Hell!” undertone, reflective of America’s angst over beleaguering issues of the era. As such, Network deserves a slot in history, as it portrays the festering social turmoil of the 1970s along with the implications of a TV-based society. Few movies are as self-aware (and, albeit, self-righteous) as Network, making it an important and, in most ways, enjoyable cultural landmark of its decade.