Directed by Sidney Lumet
Written by Paddy Chayefsky
Cinematography by Owen Roizman
Starring Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Peter Finch
Our desensitization in the face of overstimulating media coverage has become a ripe target for satire since Network was first released, and the film’s prescience actually threatens to make the film feel dated. One of Network‘s greatest strengths, however, which sets it apart from similar films, is the way it acknowledges its own implicit guilt as part of the entertainment industry, by presenting Howard Beale as a hypocritical anti-television evangelist who preaches against the same medium that keeps him employed. His sentiments, although manic and reminiscent of Charlie Sheen, are also searingly truthful and initially appear heartfelt. One of the key turning points of the film, then, in which Beale is called into the CEO’s office for a meeting in which he is forced to become a talking head for the corporation, is shocking because it reveals Beale to be not a madman, a prophet, or a genius, but rather a man driven by money.
That scene is also one of the most dazzling displays of Lumet’s direction, although on the surface it consists merely of shot/reverse shot editing. What’s striking is that Arthur is framed from a distance, with two rows of desk lamps leading towards his torso in a breathtaking use of perspective and low depth of field, both of which highlight his importance. This is intercut with Beale’s reaction shots in extreme closeup, with no depth and only the most minimal lighting. Of the two shots, then, only one can be experienced as a point of view shot: the wide shot of Arthur from across the table. As he approaches Howard Beale, the lighting naturally shifts toward a more harsh and heavily contrasted design simply by virtue of his placement in the scene. His menace and power are so overwhelming that we maintain some sympathy for Beale as he consents to a deal that ultimately (though indirectly) kills him.
Other scenes feature numerous characters in more tightly enclosed spaces, and are staged in such a way that breaking the 180 degree rule is inevitable. Most of these “meeting” scenes begin with a wide-angle establishing shot from slightly above the characters, but they rarely culminate in the closeup shots we would expect. Instead, the edits are slow and regular, with multiple characters in a medium-wide shot. The characters feel somewhat anonymous as a result, which evokes their loss of individuality and their submission to the vast conspiratorial capitalist media that the film satirizes. The film is so self-referential that it even manages to satirize the self-referentiality of one of its central characters, Diana, who views all of her relationships as various screenplays. For that reason, more so than its political statements about the media (which today would be applied to facebook and youtube), Network feels like a completely contemporary film.