I’ve been saying for years my third favorite movie is 1976’s Network. I can’t quite say why. I have always had a hard time putting into words what it is about this particular film that sucked me in. I think, if anything, it is its the film’s clairvoyance. For years, the line I have heard said about Network is that it is “more true today than it was when it came out”. I actually introduced some students to some ideas about this film recently only for one to ask me if it wasn’t the exact same themes as Anchorman 2. After some thought, I conceded that was an accurate assessment.
The difference was Network was satirizing something that hadn’t come to pass yet, while Anchorman 2 was mocking something that had already happened.
If I were to pinpoint my fascination with Network down to anything, it’s that for all the work done by so many people with this film, it’s always been treated as primarily the work of the screenwriter, Paddy Chayefsky. Chayefsky won three Oscars for writing in his lifetime, the only person to do while also working solo (others have won a screenwriting Oscar three times, but they always collaborated with other writers for at least one of those awards). It’s his name that people remember as being the primary motivator on the film. Heck, his name appears in large letters just after the title in the opening credits. I had aspirations of being a writer myself in my college days, and writers like Chayefsky were, in a sense, heroes and role models. Even today, I am more likely to judge a film by the quality of its dialogue and writing than anything else. A good script sings, and Network‘s script has a beautiful voice.
Set in the days when TV was limited to three big networks, the film posits a world where a fourth network, UBS, is behind the other three (CBS, ABC, and NBC) in the ratings, particularly the news division. Longtime anchorman Howard Beale (Peter Finch), we are told, recently lost his wife, he’s been drinking, and the network fired him. As such, he suggests he’ll commit suicide on the air.
That’s where the madness starts.
And by that, I mean literal madness.
UBS had been purchased by a larger communications giant, CCA, and the people there are putting their fingers into every pie they can. Longtime head of the news division Max Schumacher (a world-weary William Holden) is tired of seeing interference in what he sees as a serious and informative show. Beale is a longtime friend, and when Howard decides to simply deride everything in life as a series of bullshit where he has nothing left to give, Max lets him says everything is bullshit because, to Max, everything is bullshit, particularly when corporate shark Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall) is breathing down his neck.
As it is, something saves Howard’s job. Two somethings actually. The first is the woman vice president of programming Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway), who takes over the news division and decides that Beale’s rants make for good drama. This is when she isn’t developing an early version of reality television about a revolutionary leftist group robbing banks. And by that, I mean they are literally robbing banks for the network. The other is Howard hears a voice in his head telling him how rotten and awful life is. Is the voice God? No. Howard doesn’t know whose voice it is, but the voice tells him all this because Howard is on television.
That leads to perhaps the most famous scene in the movie, where Howard, dripping wet, enters the studio wearing a raincoat over his pajamas after walking through a rainstorm and starts ranting, calling upon his audience to rise, go to a window, and shout, “I am mad as hell, and I am not going to take it anymore!’
And people do that.
There’s something to Finch’s portrayal here. Dunaway got top billing, and clearly Holden’s Max is the closest to a real human being for the audience to sympathize with. Duvall gets a lot of screentime as a pushy jerk, but Finch’s Howard changes from a sober newsman at the beginning of the film to a raving lunatic by the end of it. And with Max out of the way, and emotionally shallow Diana taking over the news, it isn’t long before the sober news program starts to look like an outrageous game show with Howard as less newsman delivering important news and more insane holy man ranting about anything and everything, including his own network’s parent company.
Finch, it should be noted, was the first actor to win a posthumous Oscar for this performance. A second acting award went to Beatrice Straight at Max’s wife. She only really has one scene, one where Max basically says he is moving out because he is in love with Diana, and the complex emotions that range through the conversation that follows from a longstanding married couple with their own complex history rings true. Straight may have only had the one scene, but she plays the hell out of it.
And if we’re on the subject of one scene, then we need to address Ned Beatty as the CEO of CCA. Beatty takes Howard into a darkened board room and turns into a booming rant of his own, apparently perfectly mimicking the voice Howard heard once, and that’s all it takes to make Howard into a stooge for the network once again.
Like Straight, Beatty basically has one scene to make an impression, and he went for it.
That’s some great acting from Beatty and Finch, great writing from Chayefsky, and great directing from Sidney Lumet.
The film ends with Howard, his ratings slipping due to his acquiescence of the idea of Business Over All, and somehow his rants where he seems to take the side of the little guy seem to have disappeared, is killed on the air by the leftist group for their own show. He was, a narrator informs us, the first man killed over lousy ratings.
What to make of all this? Chayefsky did a lot of television work early in his career, and many prominent TV news personalities of the time of the film’s release condemned the movie as unlikely. Today, however, where the idea of news-as-entertainment doesn’t seem so far-fetched–indeed it seems to be the go-to defense when some pundits find themselves in trouble–Max may have the best explanation. He opts to leave Diana to see if he can return to his wife, and he puts it that she is a creature of television, a superficial, vain, emotionless woman who, like the medium she serves, destroys all it comes into prolonged contact with. Max will return to his wife, not because it is the perfect narrative for the situation the two are in, but because he’s a real human being and so is his wife and he might have a chance at a reconciliation. These ideas are foreign to Diana, as they are to television itself.
That’s cold, and perhaps, all too true.
NEXT UP: We have the first of three movies on the list that won all five of the Big Oscars: Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Writing. Which one is it? 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs.