Network (1976)

(On Cable TV, November 2016) I’ll be the first to admit that the biggest problem in watching Network forty years later is being unable to distinguish between what’s a portrait of the media landscape circa 1976 and what we’ve grown accustomed to in 2016. (And, wow, has 2016 broken through the bottom of the barrel in terms of public discourse.) While the visual representation of how a TV network operated in the mid-1970s has now acquired a certain fascination, much of the context surrounding the film is now difficult to pin down. What’s more timeless is the quality of the script by screenwriting legend Paddy Chayefsky, which sounds literate and clever and off-beat at once—there’s a subplot in particular about an affair between an ambitious young woman and a much older man that plays with a mixture of world-weariness and fourth-wall leaning. The rest of the film has other delights to offer, from impassioned populist speeches about “not taking it any more” that feels truer than ever in 2016, along with a provocative counter-speech about “meddling with the primal forces of nature”. I mean, just admire this line, which would never be featured in a modern blockbuster: “There is only one holistic system of systems, one vast and immane, interwoven, interacting, multivariate, multinational dominion of dollars.” Great performances abound from actors such as Faye Dunaway (completely unlikable), William Holden and Peter Finch, along with remarkable appearance by Ned Beatty and Robert Duvall. Watching Network, it’s clear that the fabric on which it is painted has changed in ways it predicted. What I’m wondering is where we’ll ever see something as prophetic and provocative about our own times.

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