Network ★★★★½

It’s hard to believe, given our current state of affairs with the evening news being a profit center for the networks (as well a prime instrument for spewing propaganda), but once upon a time the actual news was reported – not one person’s opinion or spinning the content to suit your political agenda – just the news, period.

So, take yourself back to 1976… where Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather told the news and the mighty three networks were of the mindset that they were doing a public service by reporting the news – knowing that the news division was a money loser for the corporations.

OK, so you’ve got that picture in your mind…. And along comes this very sly and dark comedy and social/economic commentary called Network, wherein the very fabric of who WE are as a western society gets a serious look under the microscope. 30 years before Mad Men exposed the moral morass of the 60’s, here was this film, showing us just how much we have all been sold down the river.

Looking at this film now, it makes you wonder if they hadn’t consulted Sibyl the future teller from the film, as so much of what wasn’t then, and was lampooned by the film, is now business as usual. Was writer Paddy Chayefsky a visitor from the film’s future as he tells this tale of soulless corporations devouring one another and generating a “get ahead at all costs” culture.

The film, as wonderfully directed by Sidney Lumet, stands on that mythical precipice of time. There’s the old guard of newsmen, embodied by the likes of news dept director and the film’s narrator and “voice” William Holden (himself a seeming relic of a bygone era of filmmaking), and Peter Finch, the news anchor who is losing market share. Finch and Holden have been friends for years, and yet, with a new takeover, the new management wants Holden to fire Finch. This is the impetus for all that follows, but what is truly salient here is the humanity of the old guard which is juxtaposed by the unfeeling bottom line ethos of the new regime, in the persons of Robert Duvall and Faye Dunaway.

The film further cements the difference in generations by having Holden, a ‘feeling” man, end up having an affair with the programming director Dunaway. As Holden tells her at one point – “I can accept that you very well may be incapable of any human feeling”. A sentiment I certainly feel towards most bankers, wall street traders and corporate executives… and heck, the current Congress of the US as well.

Aside from the able direction and very cool set designs, this film also boasts stellar performances throughout. In particular, there is a beautifully shot sequence in the corporate boardroom – full of shadows and suggestive lighting, wherein Ned Beatty gives a powerful speech concerning what really makes America and capitalism work – this sequence is worth the price of admission by itself, but is not even close to all that this film has to offer.

The negatives to this film are small – occasionally the script is a bit speachy, but when emoted by this wonderful cast it mostly feels totally natural, and even when it does grandstand a bit, the rewards are high, as evidenced by the aforementioned boardroom scene. Further, although Wm. Holden gives a very strong performance as the “craggy, middle-aged” news director, he seemed a bit long in the tooth for the role of “middle-aged”.

But these are small caveats – the film seems well ahead of its day in style as well as substance and is just as riveting now as it seemed revolutionary then. Just think of all the groundswell over the last 8 years where the disillusionment concerning our government has fomented the occupy movement and the tea party. What could possibly be a better rallying cry for both than the very one used in this film: “we’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore”.