Unwaveringly bitter and unflinchingly adult, it's not the sort of flick that's typically included on smiley-face "recommended" lists (although it did turn up at No. 66 on the American Film Institute's "100 Years ... 100 Movies" roll). The sacrificial lamb in writer Paddy Chayefsky's corrosive satire is a veteran New York newscaster (played stops-out by the brave, brilliant Peter Finch) who's losing his ratings, possibly his job, and most assuredly his wits. He explodes on the air one night, tossing aside his pabulum copy and venting into the camera about society's ills. An instant lightning rod for his viewers' anger and frustration, Beale and his wildly unpredictable and spectacularly entertaining rantings start to draw larger and larger audiences. In the time it takes to say "30-second spot," the network -- prodded by ball-busting programming exec Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway, reveling in her icy prowess) -- discovers the mesmerizing, primeval allure of reality TV. But Beale sees himself as a prophet, not as a popular TV character, and like all would-be populists he threatens the status quo.
Christensen's calculated scheme to eliminate the problem of Beale's ego and instability -- after she's milked the situation for maximum ratings and career advancement -- seemed outrageous in 1976. But who today would underestimate the venality of network execs after such low-jinks as ALF, Geraldo Rivera opening Al Capone's safe on live TV, Victoria's Secret fashion shows, Survivor, and The Bachelor? Network zeroed in on the intersection of personal ambition and public media, as did another 1976 release, All the President's Men (which gave us the catch phrase "Follow the money"). While the latter sanctified the critical role of newspapers in a democracy, Network lambasted television as a tawdry, shallow medium that trivializes everything. More than a quarter-century later, the distinctions between newspapers and TV seem just as valid. As one character rebukes Christensen, "War, murder, death are all the same to you as bottles of beer." Network may be a tad dated -- Chayefsky anticipated reality TV, but not the audience fragmentation driven by 500 channels and the Internet -- but it's still more immediate and impassioned than anything Hollywood threw up on screens in 2003.