“Get up out of your chairs, open the window, stick your head out, and yell, and say it: “I’M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I’M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!””
When Sidney Lumet’s scathing attack on the televisual media hit the big screen in 1976, this was one of many quotes from lead character Howard Beale (Peter Finch) that resonated with the public psyche. It was a huge critical success and would eventually prove to be Lumet’s defining moment as a director.The film opens spectacularly. We’re introduced to television news presenter Beale and the news that he has been sacked from his role at UBS due to his declining ratings. He has been given two weeks’ notice by his long-time friend Max Schumacher (William Holden in fine form) but his reaction is to go onto his next live broadcast and announce “I’m going to blow my brains out right on this program a week from today. So tune in next Tuesday.” This causes mixed reactions amongst those at the studio. The conservative Frank Brackett (Robert Duvall) leads a campaign to get rid of him immediately, whilst Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) sees it as a potential ratings spinner, eventually facilitating him receiving his own evening slot in which he rants about the media, advertising, indoctrination and the state of American society. It proves an instant hit and the internal politics of the situation spiral.
The entire cast are on fine form, not just those in lead roles. One stunning sequence involves Beatrice Straight’s Louise Schumacher, wife of Holden’s Max, occupies the screen for only five minutes and two seconds but this was long enough for her to win the Academy Award for best actress. It is far shorter than any other performance that has ever won an Academy Award. It’s hard to say in isolation whether it is wholly deserving of such accolades, though it is possible that the Academy couldn’t bring themselves to award the prize to Jodie Foster, the then 13-year-old who was nominated for her controversial role as Iris “Easy” Steensma in Taxi Driver. You can watch the clip in a sub-standard quality below, if that’s your thing.
The topics covered in Network resonate louder today than they ever have. The anger felt by Beale at the state of the network he works for isn’t necessarily centred around the network itself but rather the people who consume it without question. Ironically, the people who begin to love his show begin to accept it and consume it, thus keeping them watching the television rather than switching it off altogether and avoid potential further indoctrination. We now live in a society four decades later where the way information is fed to consumers is controlled more tightly than imagined in Network, be it on television, in newspapers or online. The latter of these is crucial – one of the biggest opportunities civilisation has had to take over the way information is consumed and what that information is has been hijacked by corporations and advertising. That Lumet so closely predicted this future makes this essential but somewhat eerie viewing.
Network is available on Arrow Video Blu-ray now.