Tuesday, April 14, 2015

AFI Top 100: #64 "Network"

Peter Finch in Network (1976)

Some stories take years to really resonate or "click," taking root with meaning as your life experience expands. That's how I feel about this past week's AFI Top 100 film, Network, coming in at #64 on our list. Another Best Picture nominee I saw out of pure obligation a decade-plus ago, never appreciating everything it said—and all that it accomplished. A stark and troubling satire of not only television, but of the cutthroat business of popularity through manipulation. An odd prequel of sorts to tales like Quiz Show and Nightcrawler.

The plot is intricate, but straight-forward. Unity Broadcasting System is a struggling network station (think ABC, NBC, CBS), whose news division is hemorrhaging money left and right. The head of the news division, Max Schumacher (William Holden) reluctantly gives close friend and aging news anchor, Howard Beale (Peter Finch), the boot, because his ratings just aren't cutting it anymore. Deciding not to go down without a fight, Beale hijacks his own broadcast to announce his own departure... and denounce all the "bullshit" in the world in a crazed, emotional tirade—that catapults his ratings through the roof.

The inner-workings of the network begin to come to light, as key stakeholders emerge to provide their two cents about how best to leverage Beale's unraveling mental and emotional state right on camera at 7 PM Eastern Standard Time. Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway), the Director of Programming, is desperate for a hit, and she'll stop at nothing to get it, including appealing to Max's more sensual side to gain access to Beale. With the news organization re-structuring, she commandeers Howard's popularity and spins it off into a televangelized serial program that speaks to the paranoid, dissatisfied, and angry masses. That is, until his popularity begins to wain.

Perhaps it's a rise in maturity—or more than likely, my limited work experience in the entertainment industry—that made this unsettling dark comedy so much more effective this time around. Each moment is perfectly constructed, the script interlacing an otherwise human drama with obscene caricatures that feed off of the cynicism of our modern society. The network executives are cruel and ruthless individuals. Are they even really human? It's hard to tell as they play with peoples' lives in order to make any notable rise in the Nielsen Ratings and increase monetization.

All of this is something that, while shocking in the film, is undeniably true of business. It can be ugly and blind, but it edges on ridiculously funny. Dunaway is the embodiment of cold-hearted and calculating. There may be no one more terrifying than a Programming Executive, because they will stop at nothing to make a show a success. To watch the terrorist group that she recruits for the network sit in a room negotiating the fine lines of their contracts is a true thing of brilliance. Finch plays Beale with such vulnerability and naivete (he was also the first actor to win a posthumous Oscar, for this role), it would be empowering to watch him throw off the constraints of the network that have bound him his whole adult life—if it weren't for the fact that the network is still pulling all his strings.

Most movie lovers remember Network as the originator of the classic line, "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore!" from the film's most iconic scene of Beale on camera in his pajamas, imploring his millions of viewers to be just as angry as he is. It's probably the only thing I remembered about it, to be honest, but it is so much more than that. It's a scathing indictment of television, with material fit for an expose that no reporter will ever write. Abrupt, sharp, and witty, despite itself, Network's script is only out-shined by its ensemble of actors.

Don't mistake this film for a character drama, if you can help it. I think that mistake is what keeps it from being seen more (or even discussed) by modern audiences. But more than any other movie so far on this list, it more closely resembles the world we live in today. A world of 24-hour news and media manipulation, the internet and the inability to escape the reach of powerful personalities—and those who control them.

For its own sake, I hope that Network keeps its spot on this list, because it deserves a second, or third, or fourth look from all of us.

Rating:  ★★★★ / 5 stars

Check back in a few weeks (I'll be away on vacation) for #63 on the list, Cabaret — or better yet, have your own viewing party and watch along with us!

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