News and Commentary – A Semester of Seventies Films (9): Network
Another week, another landmark movie – business as usual for a semester of seventies films. Network (1976), comes in the final year of the New Hollywood (in 1977 the writing was on the wall as Network and Taxi Driver lost best picture to the feel-good entertainment that was Rocky, as the morally unambiguous Star Wars was poised to lay waste to the industry’s entire business model). But the semester still has some weeks to go—let’s accentuate the positives.
Network, directed by Sidney Lumet (a Mid Century Cinema favorite), shot by Owen Roizman and featuring a stellar cast that included Faye Dunaway, William Holden (one ought to say “The Great William Holden”), Peter Finch, Robert Duvall, Ned Beatty and Beatrice Straight – all outstanding – more than meets the classical seventies film criteria of “having something to say.” Indeed, with the rivers of ink that flowed from the page-filling pen of writer (and co-producer, and on-set-presence) Paddy Chayefsky, Network had more than something to say—it seems to have almost everything to say.
Certainly, and centrally, the film is about the corrosive effects of television on society. Chayefsky and Lumet, who each made their early reputations in the 1950s golden age of live television, nevertheless were born in the 1920s and were older than the medium, and it is more than slightly autobiographical that the principal generational conflicts in the film are between those who grew up with television and those who did not.
The question then isn’t so much what Network is about (television), but what it is also about, and it’s a long list that includes relations between men and women, issues of gender more broadly, the distinct anxieties of late middle age, and the cocktail of social and economic issues that were buffeting a distressed and uncertain mid-1970s America.
And behind all that, I would add, Network also has something to say about one of foundational philosophical issues of what professors call “political economy”—specifically, the extent to which “market forces” should encroach on spheres of life traditionally not left to whims of supply and demand. (Stop that. I’m returning to the movie right now.) The motivating conflict of Network, which pits old-school newsman Max Schumaker (Holden) against climbing corporate hatchet-man Frank Hackett (Duvall), is the fact that at the UBS television network the news division doesn’t turn a profit, nor has it even been expected to. (Once upon a time network news divisions were seen as a public service, and not forms of entertainment designed to make money. Quaint, no?)
This theme of market encroachment pops up constantly, such as with the slow transformation of Laureen Hobbs (Marleen Warfield) from a thoughtful, articulate, dressed-down and softly-lit spokesperson for the Communist party into a frenzied fashion-plate obsessed with her ratings share and railing against the misfortunes of going head-to-head against Tony Orlando and Dawn. Even the communists are eaten alive by the market, and by television. And of course, there is the fate of Howard Beale (Finch), “the first known instance of a man being killed because he had lousy ratings.”
All that, barely noticeable amidst the laugh-out-loud humor that was seamlessly integrated into a story about complex, compromised characters and real human drama. Must have been a seventies film.
Diana Christensen (Dunaway) and Max Schumaker (Holden)
The Specter of Nixon Haunts the Seventies Film
Mr. Jensen (Ned Beatty) Preaches the Gospel of Globalization
CCA Golden Boy Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall), Suddenly "A Man Without a Corporation"
Howard Beale (Peter Finch) Takes on Global Capitalism – and Loses