There are plenty of contenders, but in my opinion the best scripts Hollywood has ever come up with are All About Eve and Network. Perhaps surprisingly – or unsurprisingly depending on how you look at it – they could both be accused of biting the media hand that feeds them, with All About Eve taking on Tinsel Town itself, while Network is a scathing satire of TV.
Indeed it was seen as so scathing back in 1976 that it nearly didn’t get made at all, as studio executives were worried no television station would ever air it after its theatrical run had ended. However they obviously hadn’t read the script closely enough or they’d have realised that it doesn’t matter too much what the subject is, as long as it produces ratings/profits TV will show it.
Howard Beale (Peter Finch) is a network TV news anchor whose ratings are in the toilet and so he’s been fired. Then he announces on the air that because of this he plans to commit suicide live on TV the following week (which, incidentally, was inspired by an incident in 1974 when a Florida news host really did shoot herself in the head on live television). This causes a sensation, and while initially the news heads think Howard is having a breakdown and should be pulled off the air immediately, they’re overruled by those higher up and told to keep him on.
That results in Howard launching into another tirade about how he’s fed up with all the ‘bullshit’. Realising they may be onto something that will bring in viewers and perhaps actually be able to make the news profitable for once, they decide to keep Howard on the air and let him spout off about whatever he likes – with audiences adoring his mad prophet diatribes about how he’s ‘Mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore’. This fits with executive Diane’s (Faye Dunaway) plans, as she wants to bring news into the realm of regular entertainment programming rather than being in a special division off by itself.
While it becomes increasing obvious that Howard is in the middle of a serious mental breakdown and has completely lost touch with reality, all the TV network can see are the ever growing ratings, and a great lead-in for their new raft of edgy, counter-culture programmes.
Network really is brilliant, managing to be funny and absurd, yet always in a way where one second you’re smiling because of how wonderfully ridiculous it seems, and the next you realise that it’s perilously close to reality. Many people have suggested Network was extraordinarily prescient about the direction television has headed, but the fact is that it was already well on its way in 1976 when the movie was released, and the film just reflects that.
As well as a spectacular script full of brilliant dialogue and humour that’s still very funny, Network is also aided by some brilliant acting. It’s one of the few movies to receive five Oscar nominations in the acting categories and one of only two to win three Acting Academy Awards (the other being A Streetcar Named Desire). To show just how good the acting is in this movie, Network’s Beatrice Straight still holds the record for the performance with the shortest screen-time to win an Oscar. She’s in the movie for less than six minutes.
Hell, Ned Beatty got an Oscar nomination and he’s only in a single scene and was on set for just a single day (at least Straight got two scenes, although to be honest it’s the second she won the Oscar for, which must be the greatest wounded wife moment ever committed to celluloid).
The great cast all come together to take on the potentially dangerous capitalism of TV, brilliantly skewering how money talks and that ethics and decency go out the window when there are big bucks to be made, despite the cultural power the airwaves wield. The film doesn’t just do that with the commodification of Howard’s breakdown, but also with Diane’s mission to give a militant communist group their own reality TV show (although of course back in 1976 that term hadn’t been invented), who soon turn surprisingly capitalist when they realise the cash the Communist Party could be making.
Network really is a wonderful movie that’s as timely today – if not more so – than the day it was made. To be honest though, while it’s now made its way to Blu-ray, the step up from DVD in picture quality isn’t as great as it is for some movies. That’s partly because 1970s film stock hasn’t generally aged well and so few movies from that era look amazing in HD without an expensive restoration, and also because it’s from an era when the entire world looked oddly brown, from the clothes to the décor. However it is better than the DVD, and if you don’t own the movie you should definitely get it in some format.
There are a couple of really good special features too. One is a 1999 documentary about director Sidney Lumet, which is particularly worth watching as many forget just how many great films he was behind, from Network and Serpico to Dog Day Afternoon and 12 Angry Men. There’s also a lengthy featurette which is essentially a lecture from Dave Itzkoff, the author of ‘Mad as Hell: The Making of Network’ and the ‘Fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in Movies’, which gives a great insight into the creation of the film.
It’s perhaps not surprising that Paddy Chayefsky came up with such a great script for Network, as if anyone understood TV and the changes it had undergone it was him. He was there during the early days of American television drama, and was revered as perhaps the most celebrated writer of TV plays in the 1950s and 1960s. However he’d seen the changes in the 70s when even he found it increasingly difficult to get television to take chances on anything new, one-off, or which wasn’t what they’d seen 100 times before. He may have brought a slightly bitter edge to Network, but he did it absolutely expertly.
Overall Verdict: A screenplay masterpiece, smart direction and some truly brilliant acting ensure Network is one of Hollywood’s best. Funny, prescient, smart and mad as hell, it’s a great movie.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac