One of the grandest clichés in the critics toolkit is to refer to a classic work of satire or social commentary as being "ahead of its time", with the passage of years not serving to blunt the impact of a film's satiric insight but to make them seem less like satire at all, and more like docudrama. In truth, I can only think of two movies where this really seems to apply: 1998's The Truman Show, whose excoriation of what was then the new form called "reality television" seemed like fantasy at the time and now feels like something that could happen tomorrow if they figured out a way around the legality, and 1976's Network, in which the gorgeously erudite writer Paddy Chayefsky spun a tale of how the news media at its worst is a whorish sinkhole in which the most wretched and violence impulses of humanity are turned into exploitative nonsense to get you good and bloodlusty before the dish soap and car insurance commercials.

It is very probably the case that there is, at this point, nothing left to say about Network, one of the most beloved and iconic of '70s American films, with its all-star cast (William Holden! Faye Dunaway! Robert Duvall! Peter Finch! Ned Beatty! More than half of whom were Academy Award nominees, and Dunaway and Finch won, on top of it, as did Beatrice Straight in the shortest performance ever honored with Oscar gold), and its glisteningly literate script, possibly the most pridefully written thing in Chayefsky's justly legendary career, and its famous "mad as hell scene", the kind of moment that so perfectly grabs hold of a cultural moment that it remains famous even among people who've never seen the film, even among those who aren't aware what film it's from. If there's anything I can possibly do with Network, it's mostly to point out, somewhat against tradition, that actually director Sidney Lumet and cinematographer Owen Roizman, production designer Philip Rosenberg, and to a smaller degree costumer designer Theoni V. Aldridge and editor Alan Heim, actually did quite a lot to make the film what it is, too. It's not just the Chayefsky show, though I concede that it took me three, four, God knows how many viewings before I'd figured that one out on my own. It definitely has the propulsive dialogue, frequently laid out in exorbitant long patches for which the word "monologue" is insufficient, and spoken with rich, chew élan by actors clearly adoring the experience of saying those words in that order, to feel like the kind of movie where all the film crew wants to do is to keep out of the script's way, and given the primacy of the spoken word in many of the film's most important, memorable scenes, the film crew hasn't necessarily gone out of their way to dissuade us of that notion.

But Lumet was hardly a slouch, and Network is tremendously well-directed film, though frequently in a very small way that doesn't try to pull focus from Chayefsky's fireworks. Sometimes not: the film's most conspicuously "made" scene also happens to be a barnburner, coming late in the film as Beatty's Arthur Jensen, owner of an enormous media conglomerate, confront's Finch's insane newsman Howard Beale, and lays out a new religion of the post-national world of unfettered corporatism. Beatty is framed deep in the middle of a frame so black that you just know that Roizman spent hours studying Gordon Willis before he lit it, flanked by two rows of unearthly green desk lamps, all of it in crystal-clear deep focus, a pathway to Hell that's staged with gorgeously Expressionist flair, and intercut with close-ups of Finch at his clammiest and most most terrified. And just to make sure we got it, the scene later transitions to shots of Beatty illuminated from a hard sidelight and nothing else, rendering him as little more than an insinuating silhouette. No '20s German could have done it any better.

Mostly, though, the visuals in Network are of a subtler, though hardly less crafty or impressive register. It is a film about TV production, and it takes inordinate delight in reminding you of that fact, with its obvious litany of shots that have televisions in the background, at least a few of which have the audacity to stage the main action on those TVs while the activity in the foreground is merely human busywork: the famous early scene where a recently-fired network news anchor Beale announces his intentions to kill himself on air is one example, with the gag (and oh, is it a funny one) being that all the people milling around are so focused on the myriad technical jobs that have to be done every minute to keep a news program running that it takes several aching moments before any of them register what he just said, and the staging and sound mixing mostly trick us into doing the same thing. And then there is the less obvious but even more common trick of staging scenes in offices with giant windows and behind glass partitions and any other way that Rosenberg and Lumet can come up with to suggest to us a world of glass boxes: not everyone in Network is on TV, but everyone is defined by TV, and that leaches out into the world they inhabit, which is frequently and deliberately shot with the flat staging of a '70s TV show on top of everything else.

In other words, no, let us not throw all the credit at Chayefsky, even if he undoubtedly deserves an enormous chunk of it, and Network is his movie if it's any one person's. It is, like all of his best work, driven by ideas, and by people communicating those ideas, and by people using a lot of excess verbiage to specifically not communicate those ideas. I hardly see the need to bother recapping the plot, but for the benefit of those who've never seen it, the short version is that Beale's suicide threat suddenly revives the fortunes of the ailing UBS evening news program, causing old-school newsman Max Schumacher (Holden) a great deal of pissy dismay, and new-school programming whiz kid Diane Christensen (Dunaway) something very close to literal orgasms. The soul of the network, and the sanity of Beale, who is quickly made the centerpiece of an indescribably gaudy revamp of the news, are batted back and forth between these and several other players over the course of two hours, during which Chayefsky gives voice to some of the most acrid, cynical satire that has ever been filmed: nobody in the film comes off as a remotely decent human being besides Schumacher's dumped-on wife (Straight), with even the weary truth-telling that Schumacher indulges in feeling more like resentful sniping and unimaginative defensiveness than Albert Brooks in Broadcast News-style moral wisdom. And the thing that comes off worst of all is the concept of corporations, TV as a business, and turning information into entertainment, with everyone from Communist ideologues to the ranting, fearless mad prophet Beale ultimately giving in and playing the game.

That most of what Chayefsky says is demonstrably true (and, I imagine, was almost as obvious in '76) doesn't stop Network from peering over the edge of the abyss that would make it a ghastly, curdled nightmare of unpleasantness; what does that is how stunningly funny the movie is, something I don't think it gets enough credit for. The man was a damned good writer of elaborate quips and marathon-length putdowns, and the temptation to start rolling through a list of the film's funniest lines is difficult to resist. But he was also in this case blessed with an unusually good cast, full of people who weren't simply able to read his convoluted words and make them feel like thoughts coming out of human heads, but also put a lively, comic spin on them. Dunaway is the best at this, by far: in a great cast, she's the obvious best in show, and while I haven't seen every one of her important performances, I cannot imagine that this isn't the best acting she ever did. Her take on Christensen is as a merciless predator, but far too upbeat and happy to be constantly winning to ever be anything but chipper and charming and pleasant, and the gap between her buzzy, smiling delivery (only a step or two removed from a '30s screwball performance, in places) and the rancidity of what she says and does gives the film a great jolt of absurdist, even manic comic energy. It's her work that shows us how Christensen has replaced her sex drive with a quest to get bigger and bigger ratings; it's her matter-of-factness and easy pragmatism that makes the film's nihilistic final gesture hilarious instead of cruel. Other people are great, of course: seeing Classic Hollywood stalwart Holden in a part that lets him drop so many f-bombs is funny all by itself, and Beatty and Straight's tiny performances are so potent that it never seems even slightly inappropriate that they nabbed awards attention for such limited screentime. But Dunaway shows up, and there's no looking away from her. Can't be done.

Network is so smart, so funny, and so surprisingly believable in its human element, thanks to the cast, that it's easy to overlook some of its really considerable flaws: for me, it lives in the weird space of being a film I absolutely love to watch, and have always thought was overrated. The biggest problem, bar none, is the romantic subplot that brews between Schumacher and Christensen: it offers some great writing and great acting, sure, but it feels so completely at odds with what the film is actually trying to do, and it's hard to square with the characterisation of Christensen seen elsewhere, and it offers up the one place that Chayefsky completely overplays his hand: Schumacher icily deriding Christensen for slotting human beings into clichéd spots in a TV drama, a metaphor he trots out twice. Nothing about Network ever fails to be obvious: as satire, it's a roaring hurricane of outrage about social developments that it obscures not whatsoever. With that being the case, there's simply new good excuse for Chayefsky ever feeling like he has to spell anything out, and when he does - here, a couple of other places - the film suddenly feels very juvenile in its outrage, and not so much thrilling and witty and smart.

Complaining about it's not hard; it holds nothing back, and that leaves some wet, raw patches that almost beg you to poke at them and observe where the film is being crazily undisciplined. But why bother? Network is a pure, primal scream that takes all of the drunken psychic fallout from the '60s, as refracted through an increasingly disgruntled world of Nixon and 'Nam and a worsening economy - the film obligingly does its own job of positioning itself culturally, so we don't have to - and to hem it in any would be to blunt that scream to an unacceptable degree. Sometimes, satire needs to be cunning and deadly to be its best self; sometimes, it just needs to be angry, so fucking angry, with just enough humor to make the medicine go down. Network rages, but there's poetry to the words and and elegance to the visuals that make it feel not so blunt and ugly, and that's enough to make it an endlessly rousing, exciting satire, if not always the most perfectly focused and sophisticated.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 1976
-The decade's trend of paranoia thrillers reaches its arguable peak with All the President's Men
-Don Siegel directs John Wayne's final film, the elegaic Western The Shootist
-The Stephen King Movie Machine gets its start with Brian De Palma's direction of a luminous Sissy Spacek in Carrie

Elsewhere in world cinema in 1976
-Moustapha Akkad directs Mohammad, Messenger of God with Anthony Quinn, the first big-budget epic produced in the Muslim world
-Tinto Brass makes perhaps the most famous of all Nazi sexploitation flicks, the Italo/Franco/German Ingrid Thulin vehicle Salon Kitty
-The Brazilian Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands becomes the biggest native hit in that country's box office history, a record it holds for 35 years