Forgotten Films — ‘Network’

Sidney Lumet’s 1976 classic remains relevant with its dissection of polarizing media issues

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Though today, Faye Dunaway might be better-known for her appearances at the Oscars and other award shows, her role in the overlooked 1976 classic "Network" was a defining performance.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

“I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore,” is ranked No. 19 on the American Film Institute’s list of top movie quotes in American cinema. One of the most iconic lines in movie history comes from a movie that most people have probably never heard of before, let alone taken the time to watch. 

“Network” was developed in 1976 as a satirical look at the spheres of business, television and the battle to get the best share for a television program — a share being the audience of a particular television program or time period expressed as a percent of the population viewing TV at that particular time. It stars veteran actors Faye Dunaway, Peter Finch, William Holden, Robert Duvall, Ned Beatty and Beatrice Straight.

That list is comprised of some of the most admired actors of the 20th century, yet most people probably only remember one — Dunaway. Most of those that do know her, probably only remember her as the woman who was standing next to Warren Beatty as he mistakenly announced “La La Land” as best picture instead of “Moonlight” at the 2017 Oscars. 

In total, that list of actors accounts for 17 Oscar nominations with five wins. A comprehensive filmography by them includes classics like “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Chinatown,” “Sunset Boulevard,” “The Godfather” and “Apocalypse Now.” Director Lumet is a master with the camera and has a total of 46 Academy Award nominations among the films he has directed, with six wins overall.

Putting film statistics about “Network,” its cast and the director aside, the film contains one of the hardest things that a film can accomplish — a story with an exemplary script. In this context, an exemplary script refers to the writing of films that are not particularly action- or sequence-driven, but that rely solely on the words and delivery. Often, scenes are monologue-heavy and allow actors to fully develop the script to exhibit emotions that wouldn’t come through in any other format. More modern examples of this include Danny Boyle’s “Steve Jobs,” John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt” and Tom Hooper’s “The King’s Speech.” 

One scene in particular exposes the faults in a marriage that has seemed to last a lifetime for the two characters. Through the words written by Paddy Chayefsky and the delivery by Straight, the audience both mourns for the costs exhibited and is heartwarmed for the love depicted on screen. Straight’s performance was under six minutes of screentime and she was awarded the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. This was one of the only performances to win with such little screen time.  

“Network” is a satire, but the humorous presence isn’t as obvious as it hits a little too close to home today. The film is outrageous, colorful, inspiring, trembling and real. There are small scenes where it may be perceived as comical — many of them are meant to funny in the 1970s — but now are very real concerns in today’s world. With the rise of the media, the Trump presidency and rampant corruption, people “are mad as hell and don’t want to take this anymore!” Regardless of party affiliation, that’s the current reality, . 

It’s unfortunate that such a film as “Network” has been forgotten in the realm of a movie industry that spews out hundreds of products a year. Not only should this film be revitalized, but it should be studied, debated and screened more frequently so that people can learn to appreciate its art. What it is trying to say and how it is said helps the viewer embark on an examination of a world being engulfed by news, pop culture and the nature of getting ahead — a concept applicable now more than ever and one that deserves careful thought. 

If you want a story that is about the newsroom set in the 1970s with a central female character whose cutthroat ambition rivals Queen Cersei, this may be your film. If you want a film that takes the televangelist prophet preaching about morality and puts him smack in the middle of the corruption plaguing the 1970s, there might be something here. And if you want a piece of art that shows the rise of the corporate world and how it may have killed what television could have been or what it was to become, then “Network” is for you.

Forgotten Films is part of a new series in which the author breaks down films that have lost significance in the pop culture landscape, but still deserve attention due to their history, impact and lasting importance. This biweekly column is spoiler-free.

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