Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"Finch has great fun imagining his way into the kind of passionate, dogmatic and slightly unhinged character who has only latterly begun to succeed in the industry in real life."

In 1976, television - and, perhaps, Western culture more widely - was at a turning point. Two years earlier, Christine Chubbuck had shot herself in the head whilst presenting the news on Florida's WXLT-TV. There was a sense that a boundary had been crossed. People were no longer content with the kind of news coverage they had consumed in the past. They no longer had the same deference to authority, the same trust. They were also developing an appetite for sensation which traditional reportage couldn't satisfy. To survive, news had to compete with entertainment. Out of this experimental period rose Network, a satire on the changes taking hold of the medium and a warning about where they might lead. At least, that's the way it looked in 1976. Today what it features looks like news programmes on several popular channels.

In Network, Peter Finch plays Howard Beale, an ageing anchorman at struggling TV station UBS. Threatened with redundancy as the station struggles to cut costs, he decides to go out with a bang - almost literally - by ranting about the shortcomings of the industry and announcing, with great gusto, his intention to kill himself.The result is something that neither he nor his colleagues expect. Overnight the modest local network becomes a phenomenon of national interest. Realising that they've happened on something spectacular, ambitious executive Diana (Faye Dunaway) and her colleague Frank (Robert Duvall) talk Beale into staying and give him his own show. Armed with catchphrase "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it any more!" he attracts legions of devoted fans - but as Diana anxiously looks for more content in the same vein, others at the station begin to question the ethics of it all and wonder where this unfamiliar moral territory may lead.

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Finch has great fun imagining his way into the kind of passionate, dogmatic and slightly unhinged character who has only latterly begun to succeed in the industry in real life. He treads a careful line, balancing sympathetic outbursts with potentially dangerous populism and occasionally slipping into non-sequiturs of the kind that cause his friend Max (Robert Duvall) to fear that he may be suffering serious mental health problems. Though they share very little screentime, Dunaway matches his intensity with one of the finest performances of her career; Diana, too, may be obsessed to the point of insanity, but it makes her compelling to watch. In an era when it was widely believed that women lacked the drive to make it in the industry, it's a gem of a role.

Also worth looking out for is Marlene Warfield in a supporting role as a left wing radical who is given a platform on which to advocate something that looks more and more like straight out terrorism, yet who maintains a sense of dignity if only because she's one of few characters we meet with both consistency and principles. Her emergence places the station in a politically difficult spot not unlike that recently explored in Steven Spielberg's historical drama The Post, with bold journalists standing up against the government to defend free speech, but reminds us as it does so that the ethics of such a defence are a bit more complicated than they might seem on social media.

Not all of the humour in this film is as successful as those involved probably thought it was at the time; there are a lot of crudely constructed jokes that don't stand up to much scrutiny and are only likely to provoke laughs if you're nostalgic about it or have had a few beers. It also suffers from the accuracy of its own predictions, losing some of its impact in the modern world and appearing to state the obvious when at the time of release its observations carried some genuine shock value. It deserves to be credited for that accuracy, however, and overall it's still great fun to watch.

Reviewed on: 02 Jun 2018
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Network packshot
An ageing news anchor is fired by his network and when an on-air rant boosts ratings, the channel sees an opportunity.

Director: Sidney Lumet

Writer: Paddy Chayefsky

Starring: Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Peter Finch, Robert Duvall, Wesley Addy, Ned Beatty, Arthur Burghardt, Bill Burrows, John Carpenter, Jordan Charney, Kathy Cronkite, Ed Crowley, Jerome Dempsey, Conchata Ferrell, Gene Gross

Year: 1976

Runtime: 121 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US


EIFF 2018

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