My name is ilex13 and it’s been more than two months since my last confession of Cinema Shame…
But a partial excuse is that I chose a movie that gives the viewer A Lot To Think About.
Network, written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Sidney Lumet, is a pitch-black satire of a declining, violent, post-imperial America, where the line between news and entertainment is hopelessly blurred, and where media spectacle hypnotizes the population while globalized corporate capitalism pulls the strings.
Oh, yeah, and it was released in 1976.
The one thing I thought I knew about this film was that William Holden tells everyone to open their windows and shout “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it it anymore”. That’s wrong. William Holden actually plays Max Schumacher, the news director for the fictional UBS television network. The network’s news anchor, Howard Beale, is played by Peter Finch (in a bitingly funny, deeply committed performance) and he’s the one who tells everyone to shout out the window.
As the movie opens, Beale’s ratings have been slipping badly, so the network puts him out to pasture. Beale responds by going on wild, unscripted rants, beginning with a threat to kill himself on the air. It’s not news, but it’s riveting television, so the ratings soar. Finally, after a midnight conversation with a voice that may be God, Beale, clad in rain-soaked pajamas, issues the famous directive. It seems when he asked the voice why it had chosen him, it said “Because you’re on television, dummy.”
Meanwhile, Max Schumacher finds himself caught between ambitious, budget-slashing young executive Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall), who regards the poor performance of the news division as “a wanton fiscal affront”, and the rising head of programming, Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway).
Max describes Diana, with whom he soon begins an affair, as “television generation…I’m not sure she’s capable of real feeling.” Diana is trying to put together a reality show, The Mao Tse Tung Hour, featuring the Ecumenical Liberation Army, a band of domestic revolutionaries who’ve kidnapped an heiress ( a la the SLA and Patty Hearst) and filmed their own bank heist. A forward thinker, Diana also wants to make what’s basically The L Word, only she’s going to call it The Dykes and run it as an afternoon soap. It’s the 70s, so Diana, who wants edgy, with-it, countercultural programming, has not heard of political correctness. She introduces herself to Laureen Hobbs (Marlene Warfield), her Angela Davis-esque contact for the ELA, as “Diana Christensen, racist lackey of the imperialist ruling circles.” “I’m Laureen Hobbs, badass commie n*****”, responds Hobbs.
Needless to say, Diana sees Howard Beales as ratings gold. She makes him the centerpiece of The Howard Beale Show, featuring a resident psychic and a live studio audience shouting “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more!” in unison each week. It all goes swimmingly until Howard Beale uses his TV pulpit to rouse opposition to UBS’s latest corporate buyout. He’s called on the carpet by the company’s owner (Ned Beatty, in a superb cameo), who tells him: “YOU HAVE MEDDLED WITH THE PRIMAL FORCES OF NATURE, MR. BEALE!”
And soon the ratings begin to slip. The solution? Crossover episode!
Network is both darkly funny and wildly over the top. Chayefsky makes the characters speak over each other and repeat each other, indulging in flamboyant phraseology and extravagant alliteration. They toss around the F-bomb in a way still new to the screen in the 70s. There’s a lot of shouting, especially as the stakes are raised. William Holden has some bizarrely metafictional speeches about the “scripting” of his affair with Faye Dunaway, while Dunaway gets a line about the “many-splendored night” they first spent together — a shoutout to Holden’s starring role in Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing (1955).
At the beginning of the film, the UBS news team is plotting the coverage of that days’ events, all actual news stories of the time: the latest on Patty Hearst and on the US government’s failed attempt to deport John Lennon, as well as the attempted assassination of President Gerald Ford by Sara Jane Moore (Moore was reportedly obsessed with Hearst; her attempt on Ford’s life followed a similar attempt, made less than three weeks before by Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, a former member of the Manson Family. These references anchor the movie in a particular cultural moment, while also suggesting a world in which news and entertainment, celebrity and notoriety, are already hopelessly confused.
A few other elements mark Network as a period piece — casual adultery, the Chateaubriand steaks at a shareholders’ banquet — but at heart it remains frighteningly relevant.
P. S. “Jack Snowden” is the Washington correspondent the network initially wants to replace Beale; “Nelson Chaney” is the president of UBS. Yes, the first names are different, but hearing people shout “get us Snowden!”, or wondering how “Chaney” will react, nevertheless give the film an eerily contemporary ring.