Well, I was still in the mood for films from the 1970s, so I thought that I’d take a look at the 1976 satirical dark comedy film “Network”.
Although the film’s famous “I’m mad as hell!” speech has been sampled in numerous songs, I only really learnt where it was from when I happened to watch this fascinating online video (SPOILERS) about the film and then decided to look for a trailer for it afterwards. Naturally, I was intrigued and was also delighted to find that second-hand DVDs of this film were going cheap online.
So, let’s take a look at “Network”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.
The film begins with a voice-over stating that UBS News presenter Howard Beale (Peter Finch) has been given two weeks until redundancy due to personal troubles affecting his work. We then see Beale getting drunk with his friend and colleague Max Schumacher (William Holden). At first, they laugh about the silly moments in their careers, but their thoughts go in a more melancholy direction later in the night.
The next day, Beale concludes one of his live news broadcasts with an unscripted rant that ends with him promising to shoot himself live on television in several days’ time. Needless to say, this causes a flurry of shock and controversy. Although the station want to fire Beale immediately, Schumacher manages to convince them to let him on the air once more for an apology and a dignified send-off. Of course, Beale uses the second broadcast for a cynical rant about “bullshit”.
Superficially concerned about Beale’s mental health – but more concerned about their own reputation, the studio dismisses him immediately. However, not long after this, the head of the station’s TV entertainment division – Diana Christiansen (Faye Dunaway) – realises that Beale’s controversial on-screen rants have given the studio their highest viewership figures in years. So, she immediately starts campaigning for Beale to get his own show…
One of the first things that I will say about this film is that, although it can be a little stodgy or dated at times, it is a brilliantly cynical work of satire that is not only more relevant than ever, but also has a wonderfully wicked sense of humour too. If you’re a fan of 1990s comedians like Bill Hicks or 1990s comics like Warren Ellis’ “Transmetropolitan”, then you’ll probably enjoy this film. Yes, this film isn’t “100% perfect”, but most of the film is the type of unflinchingly cynical satire that really flourished in the 1990s. Not bad for a film from the 1970s.
Thematically, this film is absolutely fascinating. At it’s most basic level, it has a lot in common with Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” – a dystopian sci-fi novel set in a future where people are too distracted by shallow entertainment to really even consider thinking for themselves. In some ways, this film feels like a prequel to that novel – showing what happens when a television station only cares about money and sensationalism. When the quality or ethics of what they’re broadcasting doesn’t matter as long as the audience are “engaged”.
And, despite the ’70s setting, this film still feels shockingly relevant today. It feels like the type of satirical film that should be updated into something more modern if anyone actually had the courage to do so. After all, we live in a world where social media makes the film’s sensationalist “news entertainment” show appear quaint by comparison, where politics is more about style than substance, where “reality TV” is actually popular, where controversies have gone from being occasional things to being a constant fixture of modern media and where the modern focus on brevity (such as character limits on micro-blogging sites etc…) promotes sweeping and polarising statements, instead of complex and nuanced discussions.
…Sorry, got sidetracked there. But, yes, this is the kind of film that should be updated for the modern age. It should be more well-known in this age of the “attention economy”. But, a film like this probably couldn’t be made today. It would cause too much of a fuss.
In short, this is a film that predicted how the “soma” of the modern age actually consists of Orwell’s “two minutes of hate”. And, if you don’t get either of those references, then read Huxley’s “Brave New World” and Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four”. Seriously, don’t just Google them. Actually read both books. In combination, they will tell you a lot about the modern world.
Ironically, for a film about sensationalism, this is a surprisingly slow-paced film that really feels like the two-hour film it is. For the most part, this works well – adding a feeling of realism to the film and actually giving the audience time to think about everything that is happening. The slow pacing is also deliberately meant to counterpoint the rapid-fire shocks and sensationalism of the TV show it revolves around. But, saying all of this, the film can be a little bit too slow-paced for it’s own good at times. Whether it is long business meetings or lazy exposition-filled voice-overs (that are only made bearable by a few comedic moments), this film can feel a little bit stodgy or bloated at times, but don’t let this put you off.
Although satire doesn’t always have to be comedic, this film contains a lot of comedy. And, although there are a few “politically incorrect” moments and/or dated elements that are a bit cringe-worthy when seen today, the vast majority of the film’s comedic moments still feel fresh and are often laugh-out-loud funny.
For the most part, the humour is slightly more on the subtle side – with numerous irreverent lines of dialogue, witty character moments and stuff like that. But, the whole premise of the film – where a TV station gleefully exploits a veteran news presenter’s nervous breakdown for financial gain – is also a hilariously cynical piece of dark comedy too. If you have a slightly twisted sense of humour or, as I mentioned earlier, are a fan of Bill Hicks and Warren Ellis, then you’ll probably find this film to be as amusing as it is disturbing.
Another interesting theme in this film is capitalism itself – and, for all of the film’s cynical satire, it is actually a call for moderation and corporate temperance that is needed more than ever in this greedy age. The film makes the case for a sensible, moderate attitude towards business and the economy by showing the very worst extremes of both “sides” in a very cartoonish fashion.
On the one hand, there are completely amoral hyper-capitalist suits who treat business like a religion and, on the other hand, there are violent communist revolutionaries. For all of it’s outspoken cynicism, this is a film about the danger of extremes, of the danger of paying too much attention to people who will do anything to get attention. And, these days, this is also more relevant than ever.
In terms of the characters and acting, this film is excellent – with the stand-out characters being both Howard Beale and Diana Christiansen. Not only does Peter Finch play the role of Howard Beale with just the right mixture of understated realism, unpredictability and earnest fury, but Faye Dunaway plays Diana Christiansen with just the right mixture of comedic brilliance, villainous cynicism and serious drama. Not only does a lot of the film’s comedy rely heavily on these two well-written and well-acted characters, but they are also absolutely essential to pretty much every satirical point that the film makes.
All in all, this is a film that is more relevant than ever – yet probably wouldn’t be made these days. It’s a mostly timeless satirical film that will also make you laugh too. Yes, it hasn’t aged 100% perfectly, but it is still an incredibly refreshing film to watch. If you want a film that actually has something to say and you don’t mind the occasional tedious or dated moment, then this one is well worth watching. Likewise, if you want to see what satire should be like these days, then watch this film (or watch a Bill Hicks DVD).
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get four and a half.