Thirty years may have passed since its release, but the most surprising thing about director Sidney Lumet and writer Paddy Chayefsky's Network (1976) is that it doesn't seem quite so far-fetched anymore. As we rediscover the broadcast exploits of the fictional UBS (a failing "fourth network" turned ratings juggernaut, thanks to sensational shows and tabloid tidings), we're also reintroduced to a world gone mad...which just so happens to resemble the one we're living in, roughly three decades later. Even for those unfamiliar with the film, Network's prophecy will become strikingly clear; in fact, its blunt message may only be rejected by those who hate hearing the phrase "I told you so".
Behind the actual story, though, it's easy to see why Network is still effective. The performances are fantastic from top to bottom, so it's no surprise the film was nominated for five Oscars in the acting department and won three: Best Actor (Peter Finch, though he passed away before receiving it), Best Actress (Faye Dunaway), and Best Supporting Actress (Beatrice Straight).
Finch's on-air monologues are worth the price of admission alone: as frustrated, aging news anchor Howard Beale, he's a force of nature once he gets going. William Holden (also nominated for the Best Actor award) shines as Max Schumacher, though his role is much more subdued despite an ample amount of screen time. Dunaway is cold and calculating as Schumacher's semi-love interest Diana Christensen, a woman whose hunger for success whips the media machine into overdrive. Other notable performances are provided by Beatrice Straight, Robert Duvall…and yes, sharp-eyed viewers will even spot a high school-aged Tim Robbins if they look hard enough (Hint: he fires a gun).
Even so, the terrific acting is just the tip of the iceberg. Chayefsky's dialogue is at the forefront of why these performances leap off the screen, so it's no wonder why Network took home the Oscar for Best Screenplay as well. Lumet's direction provides a nice counterbalance, keeping the film's frequent outbursts organized tightly. Though it was overlooked for Best Picture---along with Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver, no less---Network remains a film that does a remarkable job of holding up today. Again, though, it holds up for entirely different reasons. We've since learned that Network's prophecy came true and, along with films like David Cronenberg's Videodrome, never seemed all that hard to believe in the first place. Where the media goes from here will be a mystery, but one thing's for certain: we'll at least find out what Hollywood couples are filing for divorce.
Originally presented on DVD by Warner Bros. in 2000 (after being acquired from MGM a few years earlier), Network was a bare-bones disc with little more than a decent technical presentation. The studio has corrected this mistake with a brand new 2-disc Special Edition of the film, available individually or as part of the studio's second "Controversial Classics" boxed set (along with the equally impressive All the President's Men and Dog Day Afternoon). It's a smart upgrade for those who appreciate both the film and the message behind it, offering a mild improvement in the technical department and a batch of informative new bonus features. Let's take a closer look, shall we?
The Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono mix, available in English or French, certainly sounds its age, but more in presence than actual quality. It's clean and clear from start to finish, though it's still noticeably thin during the frequent shouting matches. Also included (during the main feature only) are optional English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing, as well as optional French and Spanish subtitles.
The lightly animated menu designs (seen above) take on a appearance of a live news broadcast---it looks a bit cheap, but at least the simple layout ensures easy navigation. The 122-minute film has been divided into 32 chapters, while no obvious layer change was detected during playback. In typical Warner fashion, this two-disc release is housed in a slim double keepcase with no inserts. I can't say I'm a fan of the cover design, but at least it gives the lead actors a bit of "face time".
The most notable bonus feature kicks off the second disc: The Making of Network (85:22, above left), a lengthy documentary divided into roughly half a dozen chapters. Highlights include segments dedicated to the late Chayefsky, a piece about the casting process and even a few valuable comments by famed anchorman Walter Cronkite, who worked with Lumet roughly 20 years before the film's release. Next up is a Television Segment from "Dinah!" (14:01) featuring Paddy Chayefsky, who seems very out of place but offers plenty of interesting layers to the otherwise humdrum talk show environment. Rounding out the supplements is a more recent segment from the "Turner Classic Movies" series, Private Screenings with Sidney Lumet (54:27, above right), covering the director's prolific career in moderate detail. Though it's less about the actual film than the man who helmed it, this feature is perhaps the most accessible of the bunch and certainly worth watching.
After thirty years of being mad as Hell, fans of the visionary Network finally have something to smile about. Warner Bros.' excellent two-disc treatment does the film justice, boasting a strong technical presentation and a batch of appropriate, tasteful bonus features. Those who have yet to see Network on DVD are certainly in for a surprise, while owners of the previous one-disc release should feel comfortable making the upgrade. As for the long-time followers of this important film---well, I'd be surprised if they haven't already picked this release up by now. Highly Recommended.
All The President's Men and Dog Day Afternoon (Gil Jawetz)
Randy Miller III is an art instructor & office monkey based in Harrisburg, PA who also does freelance graphic design projects and works in a local gallery. He also thoroughly enjoys slacking off, general debauchery, and writing things in third person.