With minimal changes, Network (1976) could easily apply directly to today’s media landscape. It is shocking just how ahead of its time the film is. Or perhaps it is shocking just how little mainstream news media has evolved over the past 40 years
Network is straight satire, which is a hard genre to pull off. This is true of the film early on. It is a little disjointed, consisting solely of jokes and neglecting to craft any narrative to go along with them. The employees of the network in question have their heads so far up their arse that they basically miss the profession from the protagonist Howard Beale (played by Peter Finch) that he intends to kill himself on air. It’s a funny, but not exactly subtle setup, reminiscent of Wag the Dog (1997) in this and other ways. The jokes often feel too straightforward as does the satire that initially focuses mainly on examining the primacy of business over personal interests. You have to dig a little deeper for the clever satire, concerning the commercialisation of a revolutionary (or anything) that goes so far it eventually cannot be controlled. There are very occasional moments of personal warmth between the characters. However these mainly serve to highlight that the film is very cool and distant, lacking that personal connection or story. Overall it feels in a way that a first viewing of the film (which is what this was for me) is really just to familiarise yourself with the material. It is a truly weird film and I think further viewings will be required to absorb it properly.
Sidney Lumet is considered a master director, and he has a way of shooting films that captures the eye, even if what is being presented is mundane. Here he mixes things up, shooting conversations in a pretty standard way and letting the absurdity of the script grab the attention. But that is contrasted with some really creative cityscapes, canted angles and split screens in other moments. The acting is excellent throughout the film and helps to anchor a script that, whilst brilliant, is quite wild in its construction. Faye Dunaway is marvellous, impassioned and conveying the intelligence of her character. But it is Peter Finch who propels the film. His performance takes you on a surreal psychological journey from downtrodden browbeater to prophetic visionary. This character arc is simultaneously the strangest and most successful aspect of the film.
Verdict: Network is a much weirder film than its reputation would suggest. It is dark and cynical, feeling quite ahead of its time in that regard. Whilst it is a little hard to take it all in on first viewing, the film still works despite being devoid of drama. The work of Peter Finch as Howard Beale is probably worth checking this out for on its own. Also does anyone else feel like Anchorman 2 (2013) is essentially a remake of this film? Stubby of Reschs
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