“This was the story of Howard Beale, the first known instance of a man who was killed because he had lousy ratings.” So begins the Oscar-winning satire Network, which many believe to be the most subversive and eerily prescient film ever made by a major Hollywood studio. Universally lauded upon its release, Network is now available in a two-disc 30th anniversary DVD, which is highlighted by a commentary track by director Sidney Lumet and a series of production documentaries directed by Laurent Bouzereau.
Written by Paddy Chayefsky, Network details the downward spiral of the fictional United Broadcasting Service, foretelling today’s tabloid television and the desperate quest for ratings demanded by bottom-line-driven corporate masters. The picture opens as despondent UBS news anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch) concludes his rock-bottom-rated broadcast with the announcement that he is about to lose his job. He then declares that he will commit suicide on the air after his final show, and jokes that it will surely improve his ratings.
Beale’s unexpected bulletin enrages UBS executive Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall) and stuns the anchor’s boss and longtime friend, Max Schumacher (William Holden). Schumacher, the head of UBS’s news division, offers Beale a chance to make amends on the next evening’s show, but the deranged newscaster again goes off script, stating, “Yesterday, I announced on this program that I was going to commit public suicide — admittedly, an act of madness. Well, I’ll tell you what happened. I just ran out of bullshit.”
Beale becomes a media sensation, resulting in a ratings spike for the struggling network, and becoming an inspiration to UBS’s new programming head, Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway). With Hackett’s support, Christensen quickly develops The Howard Beale Show, during which the “angry prophet of the airwaves” can vent his rage to the delight of equally unsatisfied viewers. The show becomes a smash hit, and Christensen soon launches a slate of “reality” programming, including the tentatively titled Mao Tse-Tung Hour, which follows the Ecumenical Liberation Army, an urban terrorist organization, and features self-shot footage of the criminals at work.
The success of these outrageous shows brings UBS back from the brink, but the popularity of Beale’s program gradually fades, and his increasingly unpredictable rants soon draw the ire of UBS’s corporate masters. As a result, Hackett orders Beale’s assassination — an event that will take place on the air, of course, in one final stab at a ratings win.
Chayefsky’s script, Lumet’s direction and the cast’s universally excellent performances have long been given the lion’s share of Network’s accolades, but the Oscar-nominated cinematography by Owen Roizman, ASC is equally sublime. Shot exclusively on practical locations, the picture is a study in subtle distortions of reality, and it is this clean-yet-distorted visual sense — soberly devoid of extreme lenses or angles and never mugging for laughs — that instills Network with an overarching air of credibility, despite the surreal and satiric events unfolding onscreen. The film is long on character, compelling dialogue and plot, but very short on visual action or even interesting venues. Long speeches — including a blistering rant directed at Beale by UBS owner Jenson (Ned Beatty) — are common, and Lumet’s almost tableau-style approach to the material left Roizman with the conundrum of making such “uncinematic” scenes visually interesting.
Roizman’s solution was to focus on setting the appropriate mood for each speech or statement with subtle lighting variations, in addition to breaking the film into three visual phases: “naturalistic,” “realistic” and “commercial.” In the first, lighting is closely based on available sources and the nature of the location; in the second, Roizman gave himself greater leeway in terms of modeling to accentuate the increasing drama; in the third, the lighting is far more stylized, with the cameraman creating his own sources and using them to punctuate the emotions of the scene. Camera movement is controlled as well, with the picture starting out with a fairly frenetic feel and gradually coming to an almost complete halt as Beale’s fate is sealed, a simple visual tactic that seems almost unimaginable today.
The six making-of documentaries presented on this DVD offer a compelling account of Chayefsky’s inspirations and writing process, producer Howard Gottfried’s careful guidance of the project, Lumet’s sense of responsibility in bringing the resulting script to the screen and the actors’ approach to their characters, as well as an interesting take on the film by CBS anchor emeritus Walter Cronkite.
Lumet’s full-length audio commentary begins with a brief breakdown of Roizman’s lighting approach, and the director goes on to point out specific examples of how the lighting changes. Lumet also discusses the advantages of shooting on location and breaks down the methodology used to create the film’s live-TV components.
The image quality on this transfer is a distinct improvement over MGM’s 1998 DVD, offering reduced compression- and age-artifacting, far less noise and flicker, and more shadow detail and richer colors. In particular, the reduction of built-up contrast reveals more pleasing skin tones — vital in a film largely based on expressive performance.
The image improvement is most noticeable in one of Roizman’s most subtly impressive visual moments: Christensen’s nocturnal seduction of Schumacher, which takes place in his low-key UBS office in front of floor-to-ceiling windows looking out on Manhattan. Lit with numerous small sources projecting soft warmth, the two verbally spar with innuendo and half-truths as the aquamarine, nighttime cityscape glows behind them. The high-speed Panavision lenses and Kodak stocks that were new at the time made this scene possible, and this transfer nicely re-creates the accomplishment. In his commentary, Lumet describes in detail the extreme difficulties of shooting this sequence and credits Roizman for his ingenuity in helping to make the scene — indeed, the entire film — a stunner.