The medium has changed but the message is intact, captured in scene after scene of Sidney Lumet’s coruscating Network.

This satire of the television industry anticipated nearly everything that we see on the small screen – the commodification of news, the packaging of human tragedy as spectacle, the use of messianic anchors to fan incendiary ideas. There have been numerous take-downs of the television news industry and compromised journalism over the years, but few as serious and revealing as Network.

Network is available on Apple TV+. Lumet directs an ensemble cast that performs Paddy Chayefsky’s brilliantly layered screenplay to perfection.

A washed-out veteran anchor at a fictitious broadcasting station gets a much-needed ratings boost when he goes on an unscripted rant about the state of America on live television. Howard Beale (Peter Finch) is repurposed to a prophet of doom who captures the dark mood of the 1970s.

Beale’s concerned colleague Max (William Holden) sees a man on the verge of a breakdown. Ambitious young producer Diane (Faye Dunaway) sees profit, the chance to shake up traditional television and validation of her theory that TV news is another form of showbiz. She is, indeed, an early advocate of “snackable content”.

Network (1978).

A joke by Max that very soon, the news will be filled with “the death hour” – reports of the week’s suicides, disasters and terrorists attacks presented as entertainment – is actually being pitched by Diane in another corner of the office. I want angry shows, Diane declares. When her corporate boss Frank (Robert Duvall) idly wonders, in the context of Beale, whether “putting a manifestly irresponsible man on national TV” is a good idea, Diane’s eyes take on a manic glint.

Who cares about being irresponsible when the ratings are hitting the roof? There is gallows humour in Network but Lumet and Chayefsky never undermine the film by resorting to farcical situations. Max’s anguish, Beale’s madness, Diane’s unhinged ideas, and Frank’s ruthless deal-making are presented in the realistic, intimate storytelling style that marked some of the best films of the 1970s, which was also one of Hollywood’s greatest filmmaking decades.

We are still looking back on the films made during these years for examples of how cinema can address its present as well as push the boundaries of storytelling in interesting ways. The gritty visual texture of Network, its moody close-ups and references to headline-making events at the time mark it as a typical 1970s product. But its theme of moral corruption overwhelming the conscience – unforgettably captured in a conversation between Max and Diane – hasn’t dated one bit.

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