In celebration of Sidney Lumet’s recent triumph Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, SE&L takes a look back at one of the director’s seminal ‘70s masterpieces.
Is it possible for a writer to be too prescient? Could they be so in tune with the turning tide inside a stalwart of cultural existence that their insight goes from being clever to creepy? Such is the case with one Paddy Chayefsky and his take on the manipulation of the news media called Network. Thirty years ago, critics were agog at the notion that something as sacred as the evening news would or ever could be turned into a platform for demagogic rants, unimportant tabloid scandal, and agenda-based crusading.
Sadly, this brilliant scribe, responsible for The Hospital, Marty, and The Catered Affair, didn’t live to see his scenario come frighteningly true. We now live in a time when information has been usurped by infotainment and 24-hour cable stations offer rant time for the demagogic, exploit every scandal to untold tabloid proportions, and let their left or right freak flags fly brilliantly. You may indeed question whether we have actually come to the point where acts of political crime and social terrorism are run as part of basic prime-time programming. The answer? Ever watch TLC, or Court TV?
When longtime UBS anchorman Howard Beale learns that he will be “forcibly” retired, he makes a shocking statement on that night’s news. One week to the day, he will commit suicide on national television. Naturally, the stunt gets him fired, but the public seems intrigued. Over the better judgment of News Division President Max Schumacher, Beale is left on the air. The next day, he explains his actions with a simple phrase. After years of telling the people the “truth,” he just “ran out of bullshit.” The expletive gets him yanked again, but the climb in the ratings gets the attention of entertainment programmer Diana Christensen.
She sees the possibility of turning Beale into a prophet, a mad monk of the medium spouting off about the ills of society. While simultaneously developing a prime-time show centering on a group of renegade radicals, Christensen approaches corporate bigwig Frank Hackett with a proposal. She will take over the nightly news and turn it into a hit show. Of course, Schumacher refuses, but success breeds strange bedfellows and Beale’s late-night revelation of his new “calling” creates an instant national phenomenon. Suddenly, UBS is not just some podunk pariah. It is now a viable and visible network. However, as with all prophecy, doom and gloom are not far behind and destruction will meet all those who pretend to play God—even if it’s just on TV or in the corridors of corporate power.
When it was first released in 1976, Network was nothing short of a satiric revelation. It hinted at the horrors that could come if TV turned its back on the public interest and instead pursued the all-mighty dollar. It dug deep into the crawling corporatization of the media and argued against allowing multinational interests to filter into and through the fourth estate. It spit on the First Amendment, flirted with outright controversy, and made outrageousness and ridiculousness seem prophetic but improbable. With Walter Cronkite seated behind the CBS chair, trusted like no one else in Bicentennial America, there were no Howard Beales waiting in the wings for their insignificant sound bite of fame.
In 2007, however, Network plays like a blueprint for a myriad of modern pundits. To today’s viewer, Beale becomes a crazy combination of Bill O’Reilly, John McLaughlin, and Geraldo Rivera. Where once the news was a sanctuary of ethical considerations and investigative insight, it has now become a chatty-Cathy coffee-klatch commiserating over the communal back fence, arguing over who’s right, who’s wrong (or left), and how much sex, drugs, and residual rock-and-roll was involved.
As a movie, Network is nearly perfect, one of those cinematic statements that its participants can wear with special, inexhaustible pride. It was a breathtaking final testament to Peter Finch’s acting acumen, a reminder that William Holden wasn’t a longstanding member of the Hollywood hierarchy for nothing, and a realization of Faye Dunaway’s incredible bravery. Everyone in the cast, from corporate raider patsy Robert Duvall to Ned Beatty’s capitalist-as-biblical-serpent Arthur Jensen, radiates a kind of performance flawlessness that one just doesn’t find in most modern movies.
Certainly credit must be given to American auteur Sidney Lumet. He discovered the heart and soul of Chayefsky’s surrealistic statement and infused the entire project with a kind of knowing authenticity that made it even more powerful. For a director whose legendary output is impressive, to say the least (he is responsible for many masterful films, including 12 Angry Men, The Pawnbroker, Fail-Safe, Dog Day Afternoon, and The Verdict, just to name a few), Network stands as one of his greatest triumphs. Its compact completeness and sense of plausible implausibility draws laughs out of lunacy, sorrow out of selfish egotism.
True, this is really a writer’s film. There are no action scenes to highlight a filmmaker’s flair or narrative gimmicks (like mental impairment or physical flaws) to show the actors’ obvious bravado. No, what Chayefsky created was a poetry of purpose, a lyrical lassoing of the insanity derived from the post-Watergate world of TV news. He was singing a sentimental, silly dirge to a dying giant and his stanzas as speeches are some of the best-crafted screenwriting ever attempted. There are several standout spoken set pieces, not just the instances where Beale goes ballistic for his nightly news tirades. When the obviously insane newsman tells his audience to go to the windows and yell out that seminal statement of stagnant citizenry, “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!,” the words leading up to the chant are far more effective than the catchphrase itself.
Similarly, Ms. Christensen uses a bargaining deal for some James Bond films as seduction, foreplay, and pillow talk during a frantic sex scene. Holden delivers a devastating denouement about broken relationships as he says farewell to his accidental mistress, while Ned Beatty delivers the movie’s main theme—how the upcoming “new world order” will be papered in multinational conglomerate stock options, not U.N. peacekeeping initiatives or CARE packages—like a preacher gone potty.
In fact, one of the most amazing things that you see when you watch Network some 30 years later, aside from how right on its predictions about television were, is how hopeful it seemed. When Beale’s fire-and-brimstone act comes back to bite the UBS executives in their aspirations, the actions discussed to “eradicate” their crisis are unapologetically absurd—at least, that’s how Chayefsky sees it. He is writing from a position of shuttered optimism. He knows things are bad, but he can’t imagine they’d ever get to the point were murder might solve programming problems. He argues that the people wouldn’t cotton to such craven cruelty and they especially wouldn’t tolerate it being shown on national television.
Perhaps it’s better then that Chayefsky left this planet when he did. He missed Morton Downey Jr. and his gladiatorial gross-out as chat show. He didn’t see Pennsylvania State Senator Budd Dwyer pull a .45-caliber Magnum out of a manila envelope and put the business end in his mouth, committing suicide in front of a live press conference crowd. He didn’t get to see Jerry Springer or Richard Bey, or bask in the bloated glow of misguided media moguls Ted Turner or Rupert Murdoch. One could easily see the author writing sequels to his critical cautionary tale, adding more and more mania to the multi-channeled glass teat until, spent and defeated, he realized that the boob tube would always win.
If anyone keeps this all grounded though, it’s Lumet. His Oscar nomination for directing was well deserved, as he manages to make the contemptible seem common and the mind-boggling appear minor. He uses actual locations to keep situations authentic and never lets his actors overstay their importance. That is why Finch is so fine as Beale. His is a character that could easily be played for overblown comedy or uninspired pathos and Lumet lets neither occur. Dunaway’s Diana Christensen is the same way. She is an ice queen, a bossy bitch with a Cheshire-cat grin masking the backstabbing knife in her hand. She could have been a caricature, but Lumet lets her be bad for pure badness’s sake.
As Schumacher, Holden is the fulcrum upon which the entire enterprise balances. He is reason looking in on madness, the ethical broaching the source of station squalor and scandal. If we don’t feel for him, understand his personal plight, and accept his occasional lapses (why an affair, and with whom?), we will never believe the movie’s over-the-top tenets. They will feel like sketch comedy, not stinging satire. Lumet is indeed the reason Network triumphs. He knows the game inside and out, and never once lets it fall beyond the boundaries of believability. He knows that, if it’s not real, it’s preposterous—and nothing kills comedy faster than indecipherability.
Though most may not like to admit it, the world of TV is a reflection of what we watch. Programs are not invented on the off chance that we will watch them. Our viewing habits have been studied and consulted over, represented on graphs, and argued over in marketing meetings. Every few years, a film comes along condemning such practices. In the ‘80s, it was Broadcast News (or if you are a little more forward-thinking, Videodrome). The ‘90s had The Insider and the minor Wag the Dog. But in the ‘70s, it was Network and the reverberations from that seismic smack in the cathode ray have been felt all throughout the industry, even as the airwaves turned coaxial and then digital.
While its pronouncements might seem dated and many of its references as ancient as the history on which they were based, this is still a masterpiece of a movie, a great big flailing middle finger to a cultural icon that didn’t heed its warning. In a post-millennial maze of reality shows, prime- time confessionals, and stunt-oriented idiocy, TV has totally lost its way—and we as the audience have let it. Argue about its position as a vast wasteland, but the truth is far more painful. As a mirror to our own internal tendencies, Network is more foreboding than every before. If Chayefsky saw us arriving at this point so many years before, what does the future hold?