Movie Night With Urbaniak: Network

Seeing Michael Clayton got me in the mood to watch Network again. Both movies have an inciting incident where the key player of a powerful organization goes nuts (and is played by a Brit playing American), both movies feature great actresses playing soulless, corporate monsters, and both movies imagine the corporate agenda easily including capital crimes. And asking

  to watch Network is like asking a puppy to chase a ball: he’ll do it all night long.

In 1996 I showed my wife The Godfather. She sat there in silence for three hours while the movie unfolded. Afterward, her response was not wonderment or appreciation but anger. She was livid at the notion that, when I was a teenager, I could walk down the street on a given day and see a movie like The Godfather. The very idea that such movies existed, and were common currency, made her profoundly angry that Hollywood had let her down as they had, that the distance between my age and hers was the distance between, well, between going to the movies and seeing The Godfather and going to the movies and seeing Tron.

(In the interest of full disclosure, let me add that I was too young to see The Godfather, or even The Godfather Part II in theaters. My formative moviegoing experiences were The Poseidon Adventure, Papillon, The Towering Inferno and Jaws. But I know what she meant.)

But to finally come to the point at hand, I do remember when movies were serious entities to be reckoned with, and I did know it was a special time. In 1976, Network was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar — against All the President’s Men and Taxi Driver. The winner was Rocky, but just think of that. Not just Network, but All the President’s Men AND Taxi Driver, ALL IN THE SAME YEAR. Think of that.

And I knew Network was special when I walked into the theater as a callow 15-year-old, and I knew it was well-written and well-acted.  (And I can still feel the electricity that went through the theater during the “Mad As Hell” scene.)  What I did not know, could not know, is that, 31 years later, it would only get better. What seemed like bitter, outrageous satire in 1976 is now revealed to be sober, clear-eyed reportage. Howard Beall’s mad rantings still sound clear as a bell 31 years later, and only the vocabulary of the issues has changed — the issues themselves are exactly the same. Gas prices, terrorists, corporate takeover of our news services, assassinations for the sake of ratings, the nations of the world becoming irrelevant in the face of monetary hegemony, everything is exactly the same — in some cases, the issues have actually come into clearer focus than they were in 1976.

There is a scene mid-way through the movie where they first reveal the new “Howard Beall Show” and we see that the show no longer looks like a news show at all, but rather some kind of television carnival complete with sooth-sayer, and my wife (who was watching with us for the first time) said “This is the first thing in the movie that’s over the top.” Then, seconds later, Beall began his rant about how television networks are being bought by media conglomerates who will broadcast the most outrageous bullshit imaginable and call it news, and her criticism evaporated. The Howard Beall show exists, it’s on the air right now, and it’s called Fox News. Who would say, now, that the conversations in Network, about giving terrorists their own TV shows, about assassinating news anchors for the sake of ratings, about staging wars and coups and crises for the sake of ratings, who would say now that these conversations are wild, bitter satire? If anything, the scenarios presented in Network don’t go far enough, seem relatively benign and comical compared to the stunning, sickening mendacity displayed every minute of every hour on Fox News.  Who would be surprised to find out that Fox news had knowingly put a certifiably insane man on the air for ratings, or covertly sponsored a terrorist cell in order to get first dibs on the coverage of their atrocities, or contemplated the killing of one of their own anchors to boost their market share?

(As an added note, let me just say that, in 1976, when they showed “UBS” as a fictional “fourth network” in addition to CBS, NBC and ABC, my inner bullshit-detector went off — a fourth network? That’s ridiculous! I thought. Then, the movie goes on to demonstrate how that fictional “fourth network” would necessarily rely on sensation, lies, betrayals and prostitution of ethics in order to gain a foothold in the marketplace — which is, of course, exactly how Fox got where it is. One can easily imagine Rupert Murdoch watching Network in 1976 and, electrified, taking notes. “Yes! My God! It could work! It could work!”

Urbaniak notes: “Could a movie be any better directed?” and indeed, the pitch of the direction of Network is nothing short of miraculous. The entire cast, not known as “comic actors,” all give great comic performances, because they utterly believe in the situation they’re in and play it as seriously and clearly as possible, letting the script take care of the funny. The world of television is brought to vivid life (the production design alone is incredible), the camera is restrained, passive and elegant, there is absolutely no score (as in Dog Day Afternoon, Lumet’s previous movie). The result is a movie of incredible anger, raw power and immense sophistication. They really do not make movies like this any more.

In a movie sprawling with great, great acting, from the leads to the smallest of character parts, there is only one false note. Ned Beatty (whom I love) appears late in the movie to deliver the Big Speech about how money is the only law in the world, and, frankly, he blows it. He “puts on a show” for Howard, coming on like a blustering buffoon, when the speech cries out to be delivered in the most silken, persuasive tone possible. That speech should chill your bones, make you come to a great realization, and instead it gets played for cheap comic effect.

hit counter html code


24 Responses to “Movie Night With Urbaniak: Network”
  1. black13 says:

    It’s been ages since I last saw this movie. Your review makes me itch to see it again.

  2. craigjclark says:

    One of my favorite scenes is when the terrorist organization is negotiating its contract. I expect that’s pretty much how it happens, only without so much firepower.

  3. rjwhite says:

    Actually- I have to disagree with you on the Beatty scene. He’s being a cold, calculating bastard. He knows how far over the edge Howard’s gone and the only thing that will make an impression on him is an old-fashioned, fire-and-brimstone southern tent revival sermon. He’s taking terrible advantage of a very insane man in the most cynical way possible. It’s one of my favorite performances of anything, anywhere.

    I think it’s perfect.

    • Todd says:

      I think that was the intended effect, but it doesn’t work — it turns the scene into a cartoon. Every other note in the movie is exquisitely balanced and rings perfectly true. I watched the scene last night and couldn’t help but think how much more effective it would have been if we had been as convinced as Howard is by the speech. Because Howard has, in effect, had a “greater truth” revealed to him, even though that truth is the ultimate evil.

  4. serizawa3000 says:

    Wait… wasn’t that…?

    Something about Network that’s gnawed at me for the longest time pertains to the gunmen who shoot Beale at the end of the film.

    I *think* one of them is Tim Robbins, but I’m not really sure. If it is, he’s uncredited in any case. In his “Great Films” essay on Network, Roger Ebert says that it is in fact Robbins as the gunman in question. But for the most part it seems no one has said anything further on the subject. On the IMDB’s message board there is a little debate about it (some say that it couldn’t be Robbins because he would have been just a teenager at the time, and I remember one post allegedly from the man who was the gunman in the scene), but I figure it’s going to remain a mystery for some time. Unless maybe Robbins up and mentions “Yeah, I was in Network” or “Nope, wasn’t me.”

    • Todd says:

      Re: Wait… wasn’t that…?

      I saw the resemblance, but I would say the gunman in question is both too old and too short to be Tim Robbins, who is about eight and a half feet tall.

    • urbaniak says:

      Re: Wait… wasn’t that…?

      1. The guy looks like a young Tim Robbins.
      2. Although he was only around 17 when the film was shot, Robbins had performed at Theatre for a New City as a Manhattan high school student. It is not entirely inconceivable that the film’s NY-based casting director Juliet Taylor had seen him in something there.
      3. I suppose the guy in the film could be seventeen.

      1. On the Special Features documentary on the 30th Anniversary DVD there are a couple of pubicity stills of the Ecumenical Liberation Army where you can see the guy in question face full on and he looks less Robbins-like in those.
      2. The IMDB comment referenced above reads as follows: “I don’t know why but there was a thread on this board that I started asking who the actor was who played the assassin. It is no longer here. I was the actor. My name is John Walter Davis and I was cast as an extra (hence no credit). I attracted the attention of Sidney Lumet in the improvised bank robbery that is seen only on the TV monitor. He selected me to go to Toronto and be the pistol shooter from the audience. You can see me sitting beside the leader of the gang where they’re negotiating the contract. I do look somewhat like Tim Robbins.”
      3. As this image of John Walter Davis as a Takarian merchant on an episode “Star Trek Voyager” demonstrates, he does indeed look like an older version of the assassin in “Network,” not to mention Tim Robbins and for good measure John C. Reilly. I buy his story.

      The IMDB used to credit Tim Robbins in the role but doesn’t anymore. Ebert should’ve known better.

  5. eronanke says:

    OK, so I just watched this last week (totally psychic, no?). It was my first time watching it, and I was amazed at how ubruptly the movie ended, but how you knew, since the beginning of the third act, that it was coming.
    I was amazed at Dunaway; how could such a brilliant actress fall from grace so quickly? Has she done anything of note lately? (Was it because of Mommy Dearest? I’d like to think so.)
    Oh, and I was totally creeped out by Beatty, although my logical brain smelled Bullshit a mile away.

    • Todd says:

      I was amazed at Dunaway; how could such a brilliant actress fall from grace so quickly?

      Hollywood is astonishingly cruel to all actresses, regardless of talent. Faye Dunaway had her decade on top, with eight or nine classics in that time, then, just like everyone else from Garbo to Streep to Jennifer Jason Leigh, they stopped writing parts for her.

      The last notable thing she did, I would say, was appearing as the psychoanalyst in The Thomas Crown Affair, which I thought was a good in-joke on the original.

  6. greyaenigma says:

    One can easily imagine Rupert Murdoch watching Network in 1976 and, electrified, taking notes. “Yes! My God! It could work! It could work!”

    And now he’s sitting in his volcanic lair, laughing and petting his long hair angora.

    Beatty, I think, was just prepping for Superman.

  7. I also have to respectfully disagree re: Ned Beatty, but I guess it just works for some people and not for others – while it starts big, he moves toward the “silken, persuasive tone” you describe,and I find the movement there (and from the spotlit opening to the edgelit conclusion) more interesting than a single tone throughout. A few years ago I showed the film to someone who hadn’t seen it before and primarily knew Beatty as “Otis,” and who started chuckling as soon as he saw him here. He stopped quickly when Beatty started speaking, and when the scene was over, shuddered and said, “I’ll never laugh at Ned Beatty again . . .” At the same time, maybe I’ll feel different next time I see this film, as it changes each time I watch it.

    I’ve seen this film several dozen times, mostly between the ages of 13-15, when I was obsessed with it, taped it off broadcast TV first, then got the tape when it came out. Returning to it over the years, usually years apart, has been amazing in seeing how a film that I pretty much know by heart changes in different ways both as I get older and the world shifts and turns. By the time I was in college, the film seemed hysterical and overwrought — I got an amazingly nasty look from my NYU Film screenwriting teacher, LaMar Sanders, when he asked us what “the purpose of the William Holden character is” and I piped up with “to serve as a mouthpiece for the screenwriter” – I still feel the Holden/Dunaway scenes are the problem parts of the film, where I can feel the writing like I’m looking at words on a page.

    When I watched it last year, I was expecting to find it a quaint, dated, over-the-top period piece, and was amazed at how vibrant and elegant it was. Reading this now makes me want to see it again . . .

    Oh, and the last name of Finch’s character is “Beale,” not “Beall,” though the slip is amusing . . .

    • Todd says:

      The slip is amusing, but the reason I thought it was “Beall” was because it made a better pun, that Howard believes himself the “be all and end all” in television.

  8. mcbrennan says:

    I, um, I’m reluctant to admit I’ve never seen Network.

    Reluctant to admit it because it’s not true. What kind of ignoramus do you take me for? Well, I mean, the Godfather situation doesn’t do me any favors. And I do love Tron and all. I was great at the Tron videogame. If there had been a Network videogame, I would have been good at that too. Perhaps a tiny Howard Beall trying to dodge assassins and avoid Ned Beatty?

    This is perhaps my favorite movie, for all the reasons you mention and many more, and its prescience is scary. The camera work in particular is so effective for me–so restrained, in fact, that it actually creates tension, at times you’re held at a calm, passive distance while this nightmarish world unfolds and you feel even more powerless to do anything. The pristine country-club stillness in the face of that unfolding evil…it’s disturbing. It’s like watching Congress sit there placidly and not stop the President/the war/etc.

    I love the lack of a score. I can’t think of the last recent movie I saw that had no score. Why are people so afraid of letting the performances, the script, the direction tell the story and provide the emotional impact, instead of Aerosmith?

    And you’re right about Beatty. I always felt that thundering, Old Testament, God-to-Moses moment ran counter to the tone of the film, which presents a man coming to pieces in the face of–or as a part of–a pervasive, metastasizing, insidiously casual evil. The thundering voice screaming righteous indignation is Beall’s tone, not Beatty’s. From Beatty’s position of power, it’s not news, there’s nothing to get excited or raise your voice about, it’s just the way things are and have always been. It’s The Matrix without a hero and with no hope of escape. And the “because you’re on television, dummy” line strikes an even worse third tone.

  9. papajoemambo says:

    You’re absolutely right about Ned Beatty

    And I think now of someone like, say, Charles Durning, or even Beatty himself, representing a paunchy, moneied businessman quietly reading the line:

    “You have meddled with the primal forces of nature, Mr Beale – and you must atone.”

    …in a matter of fact tone, and it would hit you like a cinder block in the chest at that moment in time.

    • Todd says:

      Re: You’re absolutely right about Ned Beatty

      As Urbaniak and I are wont to do, we sat discussing who from the time would have done better than Beatty in the part, and Durning’s name definitely came up.

      For what it’s worth, on the Special Features on the DVD they mention that Beatty was a last-minute replacement for another actor — whom, I have to wonder.

  10. zqadams says:

    I finally saw NETWORK in 2004 on the recommendation of VARIETY critic Joe Leydon (who teaches classes here at U of Houston, and with whom I had several awesome conversations about old movies and old comic books, and whom I felt like shamelessly name-dropping) and was just utterly floored by it. I think I watched it four times in five days of rental. One thing that stuck out at me was the battle between Howard Beale and human nature. At the time I wrote: “Howard Beale screaming at the audience to turn off their televisions, while the audience just cheers him on and tunes in the next night, is one of the sadder moments I’ve seen lately. Mad as he was, Beale must’ve seen that the more he tried to get people to go out and change their lives and their world, the more they used him as a conduit for their own rage instead of doing something about it.” Now, three years and a half-dozen or so more viewings down the line, I’m left wondering who our Beale is.

    And I have to join in the “Beatty did just fine” crowd; the first time I saw that scene, I flinched and thought I was going to go fetal.

  11. Whoa, now…no reason to smear Tron just to praise Network. Seriously, go see it again. I actually missed it as a kid (we were kind of an anti-live action Disney family–I missed out on The Black Hole, too) and was surpirsed, several years ago, to find it a pretty decent movie. Sure, it’s no Close Encounters, but compared with today’s technological megaspectacles, it’s actually pretty damn good. As a screenwriter, you’ll admire its first act’s economy and precision. No joke!

    • Todd says:

      I was in Amoeba a couple of weeks ago and they were playing Tron on the monitors. And apart from the extremely dated computer animation, the colors and production design looked pretty freaking cool to me.

  12. kornleaf says:

    you really have no idea how much i love this movie,
    how much i see it as an actual predection of what has happened etc.