In 1976, director of photography Owen Roizman, ASC, already had a wide array of acclaimed credits, from urban action films (The French Connection, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three) to romantic comedies (Play It Again, Sam; The Heartbreak Kid) and horror movies (The Exorcist, The Stepford Wives). Roizman’s ability to work across a broad spectrum of genres surely played a part in director Sidney Lumet’s decision to work with him on Network, a high point in both men’s careers that was characterized by a remarkable visual and dramatic coherence. It was remarkable because Paddy Chayefsky’s landmark screenplay included broad satire, searing domestic drama and a detailed anthropological dissection of corporate boardrooms and behavior — all topped off with a violent, melodramatic climax. Yet in Lumet and Roizman’s hands, the tone never slips, and the result is one of the great American movies of the 1970s.
Network tells the story of Howard Beale (Peter Finch), a newscaster who loses his mind when he learns he is about to be fired. After he announces he is going to kill himself on the air, his ratings skyrocket, and he not only gets to keep his job, but also becomes the center of a new network strategy devoted to sensationalism and exploitation. While TV executives, played by Faye Dunaway and Robert Duvall, attempt to mine advertising dollars from Beale’s meltdown, his oldest friend (William Holden) tries to hold on to his soul and protect his pal — even while cheating on his wife with one of the very executives who represents everything he stands against.
Network is largely remembered as a satire, and with good reason — its jabs at reality TV and the corporate influence on television-news divisions remain as relevant and pointed as ever, but the subplot involving Holden’s affair is emblematic of the film’s range and texture. Far from being simply a one-joke assault on a medium that was as easy a target in 1976 as it is now, Network is also a moving, ensemble character study of men and women who have lost their moral compasses; Chayefsky sympathizes with his protagonists’ weaknesses without forgiving them, and the result is an uncommonly rich dark comedy that is as sad and troubling as it is hilarious.
The steady corrosion of the characters’ souls is reflected in the film’s subtle but extremely complex visual style. As the influence of television, advertising and corporations becomes more and more pervasive and malevolent, Roizman’s lighting becomes less naturalistic and more stylized. The opening scenes of the picture are shot in the realistic style Roizman pioneered several years earlier in The French Connection, with a heavy reliance on available light and compositions that respect the spontaneity of the actors and their behaviors. As the film progresses, however, the compositions become more symmetrical; the architecture, more oppressive, and the lighting, more expressionistic, placing the characters at the mercy of their antiseptic surroundings and the synthetic values they have allowed to corrupt them. The upshot is Network opens with the feel of a documentary and ends on images derived in equal measures from film noir and Madison Avenue ad campaigns.
Roizman’s achievement on Network, for which he received one of his five Academy Award nominations, is all the more impressive given the movie’s logistical and budgetary constraints, many of which are fascinatingly explored in an 85-minute making-of documentary on the Network Blu-ray. This supplement, which, like the other extra features on the disc has been carried over from an earlier DVD release of the film, contains illuminating interviews with Roizman and Lumet in which the filmmakers describe the challenging conditions under which key scenes were created. The now iconic “mad as hell” sequence, for example, required a massive rigging job on the part of Roizman’s electrical crew, who needed to illuminate several buildings’ worth of windows in order to create the illusion of a city responding to Beale’s instructions. The scene was made even more complicated by the various lightning and rain effects Lumet introduced to heighten the drama.
Lumet provides additional anecdotes and insights on an excellent commentary track in which he describes both the rewards and restrictions of shooting Network entirely on location, and the Blu-ray also includes an hour-long interview with the director that originally aired on Turner Classic Movies and a very funny 14-minute Chayefsky interview from the “Dinah!” show. The supplements are all terrific, but the best thing about the Network Blu-ray is the high-def transfer, which presents Roizman’s carefully lit and composed images in astonishing detail. The rich blacks of both the night exteriors and interiors (which often tend toward the dark side, especially in the TV control room and in several love scenes) are particularly impressive, but the bolder colors pop as well and are far more vivid here than on standard-def editions of the film. The mono sound mix is clear and faithful to the audio of Network’s theatrical-release prints.