My father and I don’t agree on much, but one thing we do share is our love of film.
From the moment he took me to see my first cinematic experience (Baby’s Day Out!), we’ve shared in the experience of watching hundreds of movies. Arguments and debates. Tears and laughter. A multitude of emotions shared between us over the past three decades.
So when I told my father that I had never heard of the 1976 film Network, his response?
Dad: You’re a screenwriter aren’t you? And you love films right?
Me: Errrr… Yeah.
Dad: And you’ve never heard of a film that won a Best Screenplay Oscar and has one of the most famous lines in history? Not much of a screenwriter are you?
*Sigh* Thanks Dad.
Howard Beale (Peter Finch) is the lead anchor of UBS Evening News. He learns from his friend and news president Max Schumacher (William Holden) that the show will be shut down in two weeks due to declining ratings.
In response, Beale goes on his show and announces to the world that he will be committing suicide live on air in two weeks. And as you’d expect, the ratings go through the roof.
Willing to do anything to secure a hit program, Head of Programming Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) and Schumacher’s replacement Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall) decide to indulge Beale and keep him on the air.
Through his increasing insane rantings, Beale whips up a movement of angry Americans, all of them responding to his rallying claim that the nation is sick, morally inept and can only be solved by rising up against their oppressive masters.
There are many films of the past that have a somewhat minor relevance to the world we inhabit today.
And then there’s Network, a dark satire about a madman who goes on a massive rant about the distressing state of the country; and is rewarded with an enormous amount of media coverage and unquestioning followers. Sound familiar?
Not since 1998’s The Truman Show, and its foreshadowing of reality TV, has there been a film so prophetic in its cinematic statement. There’s no question there is still a sense of exaggeration (hell, the characters are so overwritten it makes Aaron Sorkin’s work look like a Terrence Malick piece!) But it’s hard not to imagine that screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky had an inkling of the domination 24-hour news, Big Brother and The Kardashians would have on our screens.
The decisions all the characters make are a mixture of horror and hilarity, but there’s always a sense of realism underlying the piece. Mostly this is down to Holden’s quiet performance in the closest thing the film has to a protagonist. As the only character with anything resembling a conscience, Holden is essentially the moral glue that holds the piece together; and furthermore helps give the audience a much more palatable way of consuming the increasing erratic decisions of both Dunaway and Finch’s characters.
Speaking of Dunaway, it’s quite noticeable that such sordid decisions are dominantly made by a female character, especially since said gender usually tends to be the voice of reason in such situations. But the brilliance of Faye Dunaway’s character and performance is that she is indeed in touch with her emotions, but uses it in a far more destructive and calculating manner; even going as far as to give airtime to a bunch of guerrilla-terrorists!
Such characterisation, while maybe not completely groundbreaking today, would have been award winning in 1976. (And indeed, she did win the Oscar for her role.)
But it’s the performance of Peter Finch that rises above all else. Awarded the first of only two posthumous acting Oscars ever given (the second would be for Heath Ledgar’s Joker); his performance as an angry christ-like figure who castigates the hypocrisies of the world around him is an absolute wonder to behold. His rain drenched monologue (on which this article gets its title) is a heart pounding, unyielding denouncement of our increasing unsympathetic television media.
My only minor quibble is that the performance of Beatrice Straight, while good, was not quite enough to deam it Oscar worthy. Especially since the performance was only 5 minutes, 2 seconds; officially the shortest role to ever win an Oscar.
In the end Aaron Sorkin probably said it best when he stated:
No predictor of the future — not even Orwell — has ever been as right as Chayefsky was when he wrote ‘Network.’
Over forty years later it is legitimately insane as to how uncannily prescient Network was to the current state of our mainstream media. The only real regret is that Chayefsky did not live to see his work become a reflection of the real world, having passed away in 1981. Would he have been horrified at the prescience of his words? Or did he know that our current state of affairs was always going to be the culmination of humanity’s path?