Network (1976): Sidney Lumet’s Terrific Satire

Nominated for ten Oscars, including Best Picture, Sidney Lumet’s outrageous satire on American TV turned out to be prophetic–it looks less like a fantasy and more like daily reality as the years pass by.

As written by Paddy Chayefsky, the uninhibited tale chronicles a fourth-place network that will air anything for better ratings, including a patently insane, profanity-shouting “mad prophet” of the TV airwaves.

The entire cast, five members of which were nominated for Oscars, is excellent: Faye Dunaway as a ruthless programmer; William Holden as a conscientious newsman; Robert Duvall as a shark-like v.p.; Ned Beatty as Evangelistical board chairman; Beatrice Straight as Holden’s suffering wife; and best of all, Peter Finch as the mad prophet whose message, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore,” struck a chord with the American public in 1976 and immediately entered into classic movie lore. Finch won a posthumous Oscar for his outrageous role.

Holden’s sentimental anchorman represents the tale’s moral conscience, sort of a Marlboro Man now in menopuase, beaten upon by Fay Dunaway’s fitful moods and waves.

Faye Dunaway’s role as Diana Christensen, a ruthless, power-hungry television executive in Network, is more of an abstract, or type than a realistic character. In fact, some believe that Dunaway was rewarded with the Best Actress Oscar for being a good sport, poking fun at her own screen image as an ambitious career woman. Diana’s chief goal is to upgrade the network’s ratings, as she unashamedly boasts: “All I want out of life is a 30 share and 20 rating,” for which she is willing to use illegitimate, disreputable means, like a program featuring a terrorists’ organization.

Obsessed with her job, which permeates every aspect of her life, Diana talks about her work non-stop, even during a sexual encounter. Diana is further ridiculed when she sets the tone and speed of this encounter with a sensitive married executive (William Holden). She sits on top of him and reaches orgasm prematurely, thus imitating what is considered to be a typical masculine sexual practice. Efficient and rational, she is cold and incapable of any human feelings.

Some feminists were upset by the film’s use of a woman’s drive toward fame or success as the embodiment of sickness and everything else that’s wrong in our society, claiming that if a man played Dunaway’s role, he wouldn’t have been such a caricature.

“Network” does for TV what “Hospital,” also written by Chayefsky, did for the medical profession. It’s an entertaining film, firmly set in the world of TV, that’s daring and uninhibited. Lumet makes the viewers part of the manipulative scheme. When the champion and demagogue gets to be a bore and “old news,” like everything else in TV or pop culture, he becomes quickly disposable, like toilet paper.

What was not noticed at the time is the racial angle, namely that the character who still has some conscience and some feelings (played by William Holden) is Jewish, surrounded by TV’s Goyish elite.

Cast

Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway)

Max Schumacher (William Holden)

Howard Beale (Peter Finch)

Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall)

Nelson Chaney (Wesley Addy)

Arthur Jensen (Ned Beatty)

Great Ahmed Kahn (Arthur Burghardt)

TV director (Bill Burrows)

George Bosch (John Carpenter)

Harry Hunter (Jordan Charney)

Crew

Produced by Howard Gottfried

Directed by Sidney Lumet

Screenplay: Paddy Chayefsky

Running time: 120 Minutes