There are some truly classic movies I’ve never seen before. This year, I’m going to start chipping away at that list by finally checking in on some of my cinematic blind spots. First up: 1976’s Network, aka, the Sidney Lumet-directed “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore” movie starring Peter Finch, Faye Dunaway, William Holden, and Robert Duvall.
When Aaron Sorkin won the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for The Social Network in 2011 he opened his acceptance speech with the following reference to one of his biggest influences: “It’s impossible to describe what it feels like to be handed the same award that was given to Paddy Chayefsky 35 years ago for another movie with Network in the title.”
This acknowledgment received but a smattering of applause from the audience in the Kodak Theatre that night, but I imagine those who did clap were probably Sorkin’s fellow screenwriters. To most of them, Chayefsky’s Network screenplay is considered one of the greatest scripts of all time. In fact, in 2005 the Writers Guild of America ranked Network #8 among the 101 greatest scripts, putting it ahead of the likes of Godfather II, Dr. Strangelove, The Graduate, Pulp Fiction, To Kill a Mockingbird, and It’s a Wonderful Life.
Here are the films ranked above it on that list:
Talk about walking with giants.
It’s not just writers who love Network. AFI considers it to be the 64th best film of all time. It’s been designated for preservation by Library of Congress. It was inducted into the Producers Guild of America’s Hall of Fame, which is something I didn’t even know existed until now. So, the gatekeepers of the film industry and larger arbiters of culturally important works of art agree: Network, to borrow a phrase from another movie about an anchorman, is kind of a big deal.
Yet among the general public, the film’s star seems somewhat diminished. Case in point: Network’s only #189 on IMDB’s user-voted Top 250 films list, not exactly the most reliable of measures, I’ll grant you. That ranks it immediately behind Shutter Island. Watching Scorsese take a stab at a mindfuck thriller is fun and all, but better than Network?
Perhaps the problem here is too many people simply know Network for its most iconic scene:
That scene, or at least the “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore” portion of it, has appeared in countless awards shows and documentaries over the years. Whenever the Oscars, for example, roll out one of their obligatory for-love-of-the-movies montages of classic scenes and moments, “I”m as mad as hell” is usually in there with the likes of “They call me Mister Tibbs” and “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”
As such, I’ve seen that scene so many times I’d made up a story in my head that Network was this typical 70s-era film about corruption and the erosion of social institutions which culminates with a pushed-too-far TV anchor (or producer; I wasn’t sure) going on air and giving the best drop the mic speech in history. Imagine my surprise, then, when it turns out that particular speech actually happens halfway through the movie. Moreover, rather than form the dramatic heart of the film it’s actually used as an example of how even a rare moment of sincerity can be spun for cynical profit by amoral network executives who know all too well just how to herd the masses to what was once called the idiot box.
The story starts with longtime network news anchor and recently widowed Howard Beale (Finch) being given his two weeks notice due to the continued low ratings of his program. A night on the town with his boss and longtime friend, news division president Max Schumaker (Holden), does little to assuage his grief. So, during the next day’s broadcast, he announces since he’s being fired and has nothing left to live for he plans to kill himself live on air the following Tuesday (an either intentional or coincidental invoking of Christine Chubbuck’s 1974 on-air suicide on Chayefsky’s part). It takes everyone in the control room, most of whom were checked out and whispering to co-workers, a minute to actually hear and process what he just said. Once they do, the shit hits the fan.
Beale is promptly fired and then rehired and given multiple chances to go back on air to explain himself and salvage at least some of his tarnished reputation. Each time, he goes off script and rants about feeling disillusioned with the state of the world. Schumaker recognizes that his dear old friend is having a mental breakdown, particularly once Beale admits he believes his words to be divinely inspired. However, the network’s new corporate ownership group, represented chiefly by Duvall’s callous, numbers-oriented Frank Hackett, love the resulting spike in ratings. Plus, the nakedly ambitious programming chief Diana Christiansen (Dunaway) sees an opportunity for a breakaway hit which could finally lift the network out of last place.
They partner together to quickly push Schumaker aside, take over the news division, and rechristen/repackage Beale as the “mad prophet of the air waves,” giving him a new variety show to preach to an enraptured studio audience like some kind of secular televangelist:
What you don’t see in that clip is how the “I’m as mad as hell” line from Beale’s defining mid-movie epiphany is actually turned into a T-shirt adorning mantra for the studio audience to shout back at him.
So, Network, a movie made in 1976, is about the troubling transition of news into infotainment, the potential for populist outrage to be mobilized and commercialized, and the looming dangers of corporate control. Ned Beatty, for example, shows up in the third act as the head of the corporation (and thus Duvall’s boss) and memorably bellows to Beale, “There is no America. There is no democracy. There is only IBM, and ITT, and AT&T, and DuPont, Dow, Union Carbide, and Exxon.”
There are elements of Network which don’t quite hold up in 2018 (which I’ll get to in a minute), but you can never knock the film’s prescience or its enduring relevance. Chayefsky, a celebrated writer during TV’s first golden age in the 50s, had an axe to grind and a lot of first-hand knowledge and experience to draw upon, but even he couldn’t have foreseen the 24-hours news networks, the internet, and Donald Trump. Indeed, were Network to arrive for the first time today it would play more like a depressingly familiar drama than the alarming satire it’s meant to be.
However, all the focus on Network’s timeliness forgets that it’s actually quite a shaggy movie, playing like a series of long, fiery monologues pieced together by inconsistent incident and narration from an unidentified, dispassionate news anchor-like voice. The effect is not dissimilar to the modern experience of, appropriately enough, watching an Aaron Sorkin movie or TV show. You might be transfixed by the ingeniously chosen words and at-times breathtaking pace of the dialogue, but by the end you feel like you were just lectured about ethics, politics, and the world by a smugly intelligent man with a shaky track record when it comes to female characters. To some, that is a joyous experience; for others, it’s a tad off putting and gives the work a slightly hollow feel.
In Network’s case, what Chayefsky is at times quite literally shouting through his script about the direction of the world is more spot-on than he could have known. Howard Beale and his populist uprising, however, isn’t the only thing happening in the movie. There’s a B story about Christensen’s co-opting of a hippie terrorist group called the Ecumenical Liberation Army. This provides for several darkly funny moments, such as Christensen’s excitement over the prospect of broadcasting real footage of a bank robbery or network suits camping out in the Army’s suburban headquarters to hammer out contract details.
There’s also a slightly unfocused and very of-its-moment element to this side of the film. Crucially, we see Beale’s TV shows multiple times whereas Christensen’s concept of converting Khan into a reality TV precursor Archie Bunker remains more of an abstract concept. It’s still of a piece with Beale’s side of the story, tying into Chayefsky’s larger point about everything being entertainment to a ratings-starved network, but it doesn’t resonate as much.
It’s not the most objectionable part of the film, though. That dubious distinction falls to the romantic subplot.
Even after she helps orchestrate his firing, Schumaker forges a relationship with Christensen which rings a tad false. Even with the film’s overall absurdist tone, a weekend getaway where he falls in love with her even though she uses every waking moment to excitedly detail her latest ratings doesn’t completely connect. At its best, this part of the film speaks to the personal costs experienced by the architects of television and offers Beatrice Straight a legendary speech as Schumaker’s jilted wife; at its worst, it feels like a Chayefsky revenge fantasy, as if there was some female TV executive who did him wrong, needed to be put in her place and told how entirely dead she was inside. Dunaway and Holden play what’s on the page perfectly fine, but can’t quite overcome how forced their pairing feels or the implied indictment of a 70s career woman.
That’s probably why people don’t generally remember that part of the movie. Same goes for the Ecumenical Liberation Army. Instead, it’s Howard Beale who has endured. It’s not hard to see why. To bring Chayefsky’s words to life, Finch seemed to tap into a force greater than himself, as if he handed over control to rage personified and let it use him up, sadly sending him to an early grave (he died of a heart attack less than two months after Network’s release).
THE BOTTOM LINE
Network is a sad, dark warning about the future of entertainment and the human costs for those who prioritize influence and success above everything else. To watch it now, over 40 years after its release, is to despair over how much the film got right and also learn how to get past a romantic subplot that doesn’t quite hold up. It is as monologue-driven a film as I’ve ever seen, which has the effect of rendering some of the characters and storylines a tad hollow, but when the monologues are this good, well, you can live with it. We’re just as mad as hell and unwilling to take it anymore as ever, Howard Beale.
RANDOM PARTING THOUGHTS/TRIVIA
- Network was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, and it won 4: Actor (Finch), Actress (Dunaway), Supporting Actress (Beatrice Straight), and Screenplay (Chayefsky). In the three-way race for Best Picture between Rocky, Network, and All the President’s Men, Rocky ultimately won. However, Network is notable for being the first film to be awarded a posthumous acting award (Finch), and it still holds the record for shortest screen time for any acting winner (Straight’s only in the film for a little over 5 minutes). It was the second ever film to win three of the four acting awards, and it’s, as of this writing, the last to receive five separate acting nominations (Holden and Beatty being the film’s other nominees).
- Lee Hall, best known for writing Billy Elliot, adapted Network for the stage late last year, casting Bryan Cranston as Beale and Michelle Dockery as Diana. It looks fairly amazing:
Next Blindspot: Children of Men.