Watching “Network” three decades after it was first released (“Still mad as hell after 30 years,” the DVD cover proclaims), I was amazed at Paddy Chayefsky’s prescience. Not only did he foresee the takeover of the major TV networks by multi-national corporate conglomerates, but he predicted the confusion of news for entertainment in an economy where the bottom line rules all. Hell, the guy even foresaw the desire of Middle Eastern countries to own as much of our country as they can.
A washed-up newscaster named Howard Beale (Peter Finch) drives the storyline in “Network.” On his way to a forced early retirement, he seems to lose his mind on the air, declaring that he’s going to kill himself during his final broadcast. He’s immediately pulled off the air, of course, but he gets another chance to make amends, only to declare that he made those comments because he’d “run out of bullshit.”
Beale’s career seems to finally be at an end now, but Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall), the new guy in charge of the network, discovers that the newscaster is a ratings hit. He’s determined to keep him on the air, firing news director Max Schumacher (William Holden) because he objects to the way his old friend is being used.
Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway), who’s in charge of entertainment programming, takes over Beale’s show, turning it into an early version of “The Jerry Springer Show,” minus the white trash people throwing punches at each other. Schumacher winds up falling for Christensen, despite his initial disgust over what she’s doing. Throw in a TV show based on the exploits of violent counter-culture revolutionaries and you know it’s all going to end very badly. “Network” is one of those films that tells you from the get-go that you’re going to be watching a train wreck, but you can’t help but sit there and let it unfold anyway.
This two-disc set from Warner Bros. features the film on the first platter, along with the theatrical trailer and a commentary by director Sidney Lumet. He begins by voicing what all of us are probably thinking: too bad Chayefsky isn’t around to talk about “Network” in terms of what’s going on in this country today.
As in his “Dog Day Afternoon” commentary, Lumet approaches this track as if he’s a film school professor, explaining what he was going for and telling the viewer to watch for certain things as the movie progresses. He mixes the film study stuff with a healthy dose of anecdotes and other information about the movie’s creation, all of it delivered in a relaxed way that makes you feel like you’re listening to your favorite uncle reminisce.
Over on disc two, we have “The Making of Network,” a documentary that runs almost an hour-and-a-half and features interviews with most of the surviving principles. It covers the usual stuff, the most interesting parts coming in the beginning as Lumet and producer Howard Gottfried remember the film’s genesis. Again Chayefsky’s absence looms large, although we see him in plenty of photos from the time period. Everyone pays plenty of homage to him, which is nice considering how often screenwriters get swept under the rug in documentaries.
Laurent Bouzereau, who also did the “Dog Day Afternoon” documentary on that two-disc set, turns in another fine piece of work here. My only criticism is that the channel flipping effect gets irritating after a while, especially when it pops up while people are talking. It works fine during the breaks between segments, but I think it was overused.
Moving on, we have a 14-minute segment from the old Dinah Shore show that features Chayefsky talking about the film. It’s nice to see an interview from a daytime TV show that allows the guest to delve deep into the subject matter, rather than rushing through it so that someone else can run out to hawk their thing. I was also amused to see Chayefsky sitting there puffing on a cigar, something I can’t imagine seeing on any network today.
Finally, we have a Turner Classic Movies profile of Lumet hosted by Robert Osborne. It runs almost an hour and includes an exhaustive interview with the director, covering his interest in show business at an early age (complete with archival photos) and continuing through the present day. Lumet touches on all his major films, of course. It’s a nice retrospective for anyone who’s a fan of the director or who simply wants to broaden their knowledge of movie history.
Sadly, “Network” isn’t a movie that’s as well-remembered as other films from the 70s, but maybe it’s time for America to rediscover it. Seems to me there are plenty of reasons to be mad as hell right now.