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So much has been written about this movie; it’s been called “prescient” and has been cited in many discussions about the current state of television (trash talk shows, infotainment, etc.) and has even been used as the yardstick to measure any movie attempting a critique of media or politics. Well, I say “Enough already!” I’ve seen this film and, while it is certainly not bad (and makes a decent enough rental), it’s also not the monumental satire everyone claims it to be. I was about to say that it has dated, but I don’t think that’s it; even if I’d seen this movie in 1976, I don’t think it would have convinced me. Here are some of my reasons:
1) It’s extremely wordy; characters speechify to an almost baroque degree. These speeches are well written (actually, EXTREMELY well-written – anyone who thrills to the sound of language will have a good time here) but they make for a static film, and they also call too much attention to the skill of the writer. I kept feeling throughout that the script would make for a better stage play than a movie. It just doesn’t seem aware of or interested in the visual possibilities of film; with a subject like television, which is so inherently visual, that’s kind of a problem.
2) Howard Beale is a totally unbelievable character – but what’s far worse, he’s charmless; watching the movie, I couldn’t imagine anyone falling under his spell. He’s not entertaining (the first thing you must be to make it on TV) – he’s just preachy and loud. His style might work well as a televangelist (where guilt is understood to be built in to the audience) but he’d never make it in a sphere where people expect to be entertained. And he’d certainly never achieve such fame on TV by DEBUNKING TV! That conceit is just a pipe dream by the author. Furthermore, the actor playing the role is totally wooden: when he gets “mad as hell”, it should be a triumphant scene (madness, rage, and absurdity coalescing) but instead it just looks stupid.
3) The best character in the movie is Faye Dunaway. In addition to being totally hot, her producer character is so monolithically focused it’s frightening and hysterical at the same time (film’s subtlest gag: her on-going commentary concerning her network programming decisions during her date and sex scene with William Holden – it’s like, even amidst intimate situations, she just cannot talk about anything else but TV). The center of the film should have been her dealings with the Black Panther-like group looking to get airtime; that’s a genuinely funny and biting concept (the revolution WILL BE televised) – but it’s just presented as atmosphere, rather than as a follow-through plot point.
4) The affair between Dunaway and Holden is completely unbelievable from start to finish. OK, we can buy that he’s sexually attracted to her, but her ideals and personality are so antithetical to everything he stands for that no way can we imagine him wanting anything more from her than one roll in the sack. And since (in a brilliant conceit) the film makes her such a lousy lay, we’re left to wonder what he stays with her for. Because of this, his big kiss-off speech to her, though well-written (natch), has no impact and is in fact embarrassing because he should never have been with her in the first place. In fact, he ends up inadvertently looking worse than she does; at least she knows what she wants and pursues her goals single-mindedly and forcefully, while he waffles and sells out his ideals in even being with her.
Still, some might argue, for 1976, “Network” was a very bold and groundbreaking statement against television – nothing else like it was being done. In movies, perhaps that’s true. But a year previous, the original “Saturday Night Live” went on air and I think it actually represents the first true assault of the form. The original seasons of SNL (as well as its Canadian cousin, “SCTV”) were far more successful at lampooning the conventions of television than “Network” was – precisely because they were doing it from the inside, as a group of writers and performers who had grown up watching it. This gave their satire two distinct advantages: first, their knowledge allowed them greater authenticity in the look and feel of actual programming (something “Network” has no clue about). Also, and perhaps more importantly, they recognized the allure and power of television, as well as the falseness; “Network” just captures the falseness – and as such, it runs with only half the equation. It’s like those anti-drug campaigns that tell you drugs are not fun. Well, come on don’t lie – drugs (and television) may be dangerous, socially disruptive, and a sap to the general intelligence of the masses (or they may not be, actually) – but they ARE fun! Or at least they fill some need. Not to reckon with that is to remove all credibility from your presentation.
Like I said, though, it’s a decent rental. But as a yardstick to measure current television satires against, well. . . “Network” falls several yards short.
“Network” is available on DVD and streaming.