In a world full of hyperbole, where people want to make sure everything is the best, greatest, more original thing of its time, let's stop for a second and consider that the best possible barometer to judge these things is time. Go over to your DVD library and pull out your copy of The Social Network and look at the front cover. There are a lot of good things about it, like "once in a generation," and a "landmark" film. And I like the film and have it on Blu-ray myself. But I challenge anyone who's a fan of this film to revisit it three decades from now and see if it resonates anywhere close to what Network has been able to do since its release in 1976.
Written by Paddy Chayefsky (Paint Your Wagon) and directed by Sidney Lumet (Dog Day Afternoon), we first see Network focus on Howard Beale (Sunday Bloody Sunday), news anchor of the fictional UBS television network. Howard recently lost his wife and began drinking, and the stress of this along with declining ratings prompted him to announce on air that he would kill himself in a week. His best friend and news division President Max Schumacher (William Holden, The Bridge on the River Kwai) lets him down easy, informing him that he will be fired. However in this period before his dismissal, he has a breakdown, culminating in a disheveled rant on air that takes hold with the population. Max tries to continue proceeding with Howard's dismissal, but runs into objections now that Howard is popular, the objections are from by Network Vice President Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall, Apocalypse Now), who has always had a problem with Max's lack of financial health in the news department. The other objections are from Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway, Bonnie and Clyde), head of programming at UBS. Above all else, Diana is charged with helping pull the network from the ratings doldrums, and is responsible for sensationalistic programs, including one that follows a domestic terrorist network. Max, while scoffing at her professional ideas and methods, becomes infatuated with her, even leaving his wife for Diana in the process. It's hard to go further without going into spoiler territory, so I'll leave it at that.
Talking about the satire for a moment, let's explore some of the things that are said by characters in the film. Chayefsky eschews some of the more specific parts of the condition at the time for favor of broader more emotional chords. Things like moments of individual expression (such as Beale's legendary "Mad as Hell" rant), lack of real valued democracy, corporations have taken it over (such as in the speech that sways Beale to decry a different message late in the film) are mentioned, to say nothing of the power of television. These were all things that were mentioned in 1976 and are just as transferable now as they were then. What's changed since then?
Maybe the apathy has risen, I don't know. But it's clear that at this point, the "news as entertainment" factor in today's broadcast news has increased exponentially to the point of fodder. As O'Reilly, Olbermann, Parker and Spitzer have shown, it's not entirely about what they say or how they say it, it's the package you're given that is supposed to hook you in, and then the opinion journalism takes hold like a virus. Getting mad as Beale does not only is supposed to express personal value, but also to shake you out of the general malaise that could be easily swayed by one of those snake oil salespeople. That Chayefsky writes this so beautifully (and Lumet illustrates it with the stars) remains exceptional.
Along those lines, what remains equally amazing is both Holden's performance as Max, along with his connections to the female characters. First, his affair with Diana is a surprise in how assertive she is, but as it develops, you can see when Max calls Diana "television incarnate" how true it is. There's more nuance with Max when he talks about his feelings and emotions, and he seems to represent more than just the journalistic old guard. Diana is more up front and abrasive about her feelings, and she's symbolic of the current times. Chayefsky deliberately reverses their roles in their relationship perhaps for this reason. Dunaway (as Lumet says several times throughout the disc) conveys cold calculation effectively, and Holden turns in an amazing performance, making Chayefsky's dialogue sound brilliant and a welcome breath of fresh air in the midst of some scripts that get made these days. There is a reason why Dunaway and Holden were nominated for Oscars (Dunaway won Best Actress, Holden lost the Best Actor trophy...to Finch), along with Beatrice Straight (who plays Max's abandoned wife in a memorable scene) and Ned Beatty (Toy Story 3) as a corporate President, it's because the script is amazing, and told with precision and confidence.
So yeah, the things Network speaks about in terms of American culture and journalism are still around and still ring true, amazingly so. It's done with a pitch perfect story and outstanding direction, and full of performances that could win any trophy on their own. And as much as I like it, I don't think The Social Network can claim that, now or in the future.
The Blu-ray Disc:
Network comes to Blu-ray in 1.85:1 high-definition widescreen using the AVC codec. Lumet has mentioned several times that he wanted Director of Photography Owen Roizman to "corrupt" the picture and it does look gritty to a degree, gradually becoming more polished and slick as the film goes on to symbolize the corruption. In between that and the film's age, I think one has to consider watching this film with those in mind. There's not a lot of image detail to be gained, and I counted one moment where the background lent the foreground look to be multidimensional (during Howard's first speech after meeting the CCA boss), blacks are inconsistent, but at least film grain in noticeable in the production. All in all this is as good as Network is likely to look, and it was done purposely for artistic intent in my mind.
The only English audio option is a DTS-HD Master Audio mono track. There wasn't too much to be gained from the lossless track, the track itself was clean and free of hissing or additional distractions, dialogue was as clear as can be and all of it stayed in the center channel. It's a straightforward, accurate and pleasant listening experience, or at least as good as the production values allow it to be.
All of the extras from the 2006 release have been ported over. Lumet provides a commentary track that's both active and full of production recollections about the cast, crew or particular moments in it. He talks about the actors off screen and how they were as people and recalls his early television work too. Granted, some of his comments you might see in the subsequent extras, but it's worth listening to in nothing else for his thoughts about how the film worked out.
Next up is a six-part examination on the making of the film, entitled "Behind the Story." The first portion is "The World and Words of Paddy Chayefsky" (11:53), where producer Howard Gottfried recalls how he met the writer and how Paddy's thoughts on television and the world in general helped shape his thoughts on the story. The discussions on bringing in Lumet are touched on, while Lumet recounts getting the film and his previous history of directing television projects. Next up is "The Cast, The Characters" (13:30), where those actors still with us (mainly Dunaway and Ned Beatty along with Lance Henriksen) talk about how they worked with Lumet on set and Lumet talks about how they got their respective roles. Lumet also talks about landing Finch and Holden as well. "Mad as Hell! Creation of a Movie Moment" (7:36) is a loose breakdown and remembrance of Finch's iconic monologue, and Lumet talks about how it was shot and the instructions he gave to Finch. "The Experience" (25:14) is where Lumet details the rehearsal and production process, and the actors remember how things went on set. Lumet mentions his loose sparring with Chayefsky about scenes and how actors worked in others. "The Style" (17:25) is where Lumet and Roizman talk about the visual look of the film, and Roizman discusses how the script helped him in shooting and lighting scenes. Production Designer Philip Rosenberg remembers how the set design and locations came about, and Lumet recalls the locations the production went to and how they helped with his shooting in them. Finally, a remembrance of sorts by Walter Cronkite (9:25) looks at how "accurate" the film is and he also discusses how he came to be friends with Lumet. All in all, an outstanding retrospective on a great film.
But there's more! "Private Screenings with Sidney Lumet" (54:34) is a Turner Classic Movies-produced piece where host Robert Osborne sits down with the director and they talk about Lumet's work and Osborne asks about how it was to work with an actor/actress along with an anecdote or two about a particular film if one is available. There's even a segment where Chayefsky appeared on the Dinah Shore show in 1977 (14:02) and discusses with her (and Steve Lawrence) about the power of television and what compelled him to write the screenplay. The trailer (2:59) completes a fairly exhaustive set.
Network has only gotten better with age and while our news reporting gets even closer to it, will continue to do so. The performances are amazing and the dialogue is great to listen to. Technically it's not going to take home the best girl at the dance, but the film is what is supposed to be the star in this case, and that (along with the supplements) keeps it a film that truly is a landmark. If it's not in your video library by now, it should be.