This groundbreaking film is a rare example of a really god satire that was popular with film critics and the public – and even with entertainment industry insiders, who might not be expected to get the joke or appreciate the abuse. (I guess Hollywood has always had a condescending attitude toward TV, which explains the Oscars that Network received.)
One evening, Howard Beale (Peter Finch), a network news anchor, becomes fed up with the pablum of network news, decides he’s mad as hell, he can’t take it any more, and he’s going to start telling the truth (or kill himself). Panicked producers fire him, but not before his ratings soar; so he’s brought back as a commentator. Over the next few weeks, Beale becomes increasingly unstable and even delusional, but continues to tell the truth. The network’s ratings soar, driving events forward to a tragic conclusion.
Paddy Chayefsky’s screenplay attacks television from more angles than anyone else ever thought of. Chayefsky’s maniacal, ruthless TV producers, led by Faye Dunaway (whose character seems to be modeled after Lady Macbeth), stage fake political revolutions for ratings and brainwash the public with psychics, televangelists, etc. Even TV’s psychological effects are explored (eg. Faye Dunaway’s character is unable to make a relationship last longer than soap-opera duration, and climaxes too soon during sex because TV has shortened her attention span to one minute).
Of course, the movie’s nightmare vision of a TV network pandering to the lowest common denominator with lesbian cops, psychics, and psychotic news commentators does not seem like fiction now. It has become reality. But give the filmmakers credit for being ahead of their time.
Having already made a great film, Chayefsky sends the last part of the film in an unexpected direction as Finch’s mad newscaster starts proselytizing for a vision of holistic, global capitalism that is uncannily similar to today’s Internet and “New Economy” hype. But Americans aren’t ready to become atoms in a vast network of global consumption and they start tuning out, leading the show’s producers to the logical, inevitable conclusion.
Given the media’s chokehold on public opinion today, this movie begs to be remade and updated. But don’t expect Hollywood to do that anytime soon – or to release another political satire this penetrating and subversive, either.
Review by David Bezanson © 2001 filmcritic.com