One of the best things to come across in the film world is a movie that hasn't lost anything with age. Something even more rare is a film that gathers more poignancy with time. The pinnacle, however, is when the script is savvy enough, the actors good enough, and the message potent enough that it will never die. Network is such a film.
The plot seems to follow the modus operandi of Ingmar Bergman; his belief was that writing was like pulling a string out of a pair of pants, and the best course is to follow that strand wherever it goes without forcing it. The premise it starts out with is simple enough: Howard Beale is a middle-aged middle-tiered network news anchor at UBS whose middling relationship with the ratings is taking a slide, so he gets canned; his best friend in the business and also the man in charge of news at UBS, Max Schumacher, is enlisted to tell him. Beale has no children and his wife died the previous year, so after joking about it in the bar, he decides to go on the air and announce that he's committing suicide on air in on his last broadcast in one week.
Naturally, the top brass want nothing of the sort, so they take Beale off the air. In the stockholders meeting the next morning, a man of growing influence in UBS (thanks to a buyout from the much larger CCA corporation), Frank Hackett, announces that the news division is becoming accountable to network, which means Schumacher is no longer going to be calling the shots. After this, Beale asks him if he can anchor one last time to apologize so he doesn't go out like a clown. When he goes on, he starts rattling off his laundry list of complaints about life being bullshit, but since Schumacher has nothing to lose, he decides to not pull the plug and let Beale go out however he wants. Upon seeing this, ambitious programming exec Diana Christensen sees potential for Beale to be the hottest thing in television, as his on-air antics got him the front page of the NY Times, so they decide to put him back on the air as a modern day prophet denouncing the hypocrisies of our times (then 1976). That's when things start to get weird.
Suffice it to say that our society's rapid and sad path towards reality television is accurately portrayed, but the poignancy comes strongest in the prophetic ramblings of Beale. Beale mentions that the television is 'the most awesome god-damn propaganda force in the whole godless world'. One wonders how often people glaze over this fact, how often we see something reported on television and repeat it verbatim, only to back up our arguments by saying 'I saw it on TV'. Think about how much of people’s lives are defined by the television: people who watch Friends believe that Jennifer Aniston is actually their friend and as a result hate Angelina Jolie. It goes even deeper than that, as the information provided by network news is biased by the politics of the station reporting it. A station like the 'fair and balanced' Fox News has people believing that they are reporting political news fairly. Rumors like the 'liberal media' swirl around news networks, and audiences align themselves with the people they agree with, never the people that are right. But who is right after all?
These are the questions that permeate Beale's soliloquies throughout the second half of the film when his show evolves (or devolves?); he may have gone crazy, but he seems to make more sense than just about anyone else around him. While Beale's show has taken the format of televangelism, Christensen is becoming more aggressive in her pursuit of edgy programming, enlisting a militant black communist sect (the Ecumenical Liberation Army) to fill an hour a week with whatever propaganda they want, provided they supply the show with real act of terrorism performed and recorded by them. Would modern audiences not eat this up?
To its core, the film is about the perversion of society as seen through the media. When Schumacher is fired as Beale ascends, he becomes Christensen's lover. She spends the entire romantic evening (candle-lit dinner, walk on the beach, seduction in the hotel room) talking about her problems with the network, culminating with her orgasming. When Schumacher leaves his wife, he mentions that Christensen sees their affair like a television script, and every ending has Schumacher returning to his wife in the third act. Everyone is ultimately looking to satisfy a boss, whether it's the head of a corporation or a lover, except for Beale and the equally crazy (or enlightened?) boss of CCA Arthur Jensen, whose corporate cosmology is in direct opposition with Beale's, but each is obsessed with the ultimate truth of human society.
The acting, put bluntly, will fuck with your head. This is one of two films in the history of the Academy Awards to take home three acting Oscars. Five of the seven leads were nominated. Peter Finch's Howard Beale is clearly the winner of the group, who manages to go from everyman to total lunatic by the end credits so convincingly, it's hard to imagine Finch as anyone else (sadly, he passed away while promoting the film, so there is some morose irony in my statement). You can see the passion in his eyes and hear it in his voice when he says “I’m a human being, god dammit; my life has value!” By the credits, you’ll wish there was a Howard Beale Show so you could get a daily dose of him. Faye Dunaway's Diana Christensen has no history, there is no way of knowing who her character really is besides a ratings machine, and though emotion manages to shine through, she never changes; she’s so engaging and so sad as a person, you won’t know what to think of her by the end, and that’s precisely what makes her human. She fits her description as a ratings machine to a T, but she still manages to surprise you.
As Max Schumacher, William Holding is the group's underdog. While Beale and Jensen are madmen, Christensen is a creation of television, Hackett is driven by power; Schumacher is the only one that sees that all of them are insane and is the closest thing to a human being on the screen, especially when he tells Christensen off in the kitchen. If Finch's Oscar couldn't have been won posthumously, it would have gone to him. Ned Beatty's Arthur Jensen is quiet save one five-minute outburst of Shakespearean proportions; he was nominated based on that scene alone. If you can follow him as Beale does, he might change your view of the world. Beatrice Straight, who plays Schumacher's wife Louise, has one of the shortest Oscar-win appearances in history; she won based on the scene when Max leaves her. She's upset, furious, weak, and strong all at once, then she displays the sort of ironic humor and undying compassion that could only come from a woman who had been married over twenty-five years. Though the bit performers take a backseat to the powerful leads, ELA figureheads Laureen Hobbs and Ahmed Kahn (Marlene Warfield and Arthur Burghardt) stick with you as their once all-encompassing Ids get absorbed by the infectious capitalism of the network system.
In short, don't just watch this film. Buy it. Watch it a thousand times, until you can perform a recitation of Beale's monologues, because this is that kind of movie that never grows old as the decades pass and never gets tiresome no matter how much you watch. It helps you realize that you're a human being, god dammit. It'll make you mad as hell, and you won't know how to take it anymore.