Network (1976)

Howard Beale (Peter Finch). Standard pose. Not pictured: a blackboard, allusions to Nazism. "Network."

Directed by Sidney Lumet. Written by Paddy Chayefsky. Produced by Howard Gottfried. Music by Elliot Lawrence. Photographed by Owen Roizman. Edited by Alan Heim. Production designed by Phillip Rosenberg. Starring Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Peter Finch, Robert Duvall, Wesley Addy, Ned Beatty, Arthur Burghardt, Beatrice Straight.

It’s not the simple message that makes Sidney Lumet’s Network so good, but instead the way it so persuasively builds a case for it. It is easy to offer a statement arguing that television is a corrupt, capricious, destructive industry, but it is something more difficult to turn that into drama, and even harder to turn into satire. And it is harder still to make it into something like Network, which combines the two approaches with such remarkable assurance. It has moments of outrage and vision, and jet-black comedy, yes, but it puts them in a dramatic story so convincingly told that it acts as perfect ballast. Many satires are self-conscious, as if they are preoccupied with the fear that their tenuous spell on the audience will be broken. And others, classics many, tilt everything just a touch towards caricature in order to let everything take flight (We may love Dr. Strangelove, but would we want a version lacking the hilarious triple-act by Peter Sellers?) Network doesn’t do any of that – it stays grounded so well that by the time it gets to its closing passages and goes over the top, we are dragged up with it, giving no resistance. By then, its brand of insanity makes perfect sense.

That skill shines through even after thirty-five years, which have effectively transformed the prophetic warnings of Paddy Chayefsky’s screenplay into pure sociological commentary. Not only is it no longer appalling that a television network would exploit mental illness and debase journalistic principles in the holy pursuit of ratings, it is not the least bit surprising. If you think that a network would never put the ravings of a deranged psyche on the air, I invite you to sit down for an hour of Glenn Beck and then reconsider. If you think the subplot involving a band of terrorists being groomed for a reality show is implausible, I beg to differ,  since the past decade has made it clear the entertainment industry has no qualms with employing criminals, as long as it doesn’t get in the way of business. And if you think the insane ramblings of Howard Beale would never spread like a virus through the populace, I’ve got one word for you: winning.

The iconic moments in Network indeed belong to Howard Beale (Oscar winner Peter Finch), the “mad prophet of the airwaves,” a respected newman whose descent into crazy is tinged with just enough sympathy that you wonder whether he truly is right like a stopped watch. Beale’s plight opens the film with irony: when he is sacked by his network, then goes on the next night and announces his plan to kill himself on air, while only one person in the preoccupied control room seems to actually notice. It is Beale who supplies the famous line: “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” when he is allowed back on the air by the fourth-place UBS network, veering from his prepared remarks (“I just got tired of all the bullshit”) and entering full-on meltdown mode, dripping wet from an evening’s constitutional in the rain. And the screenplay makes note of Howard’s unblinking complicity in allowing UBS to shape his delirium into a slick entertainment program called The Howard Beale Show, an audience-friendly hodgepodge of psychics and tacky packages that the network entertainment division cheerfully labels “news.” Beale makes a lasting impression because he is Network’s King Lear, a tragic figure who is exploited and then discarded by television’s insatiable need for viewers, which is more valuable than land.

But the film is not actually about Howard Beale. Its focus is instead the fragrant Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway), an ambitious, power-hungry executive who becomes impresario of Howard Beale’s special circus because it goes perfectly with her new dynamic vision for the network, which includes programming a reality show known as the Mao Tse Tung Hour. Diana paces her corner office like a caged animal, then is let loose by the network’s distracted corporate owners, where she revitalizes the news division by effectively dismantling it and then reassembling the pieces into a parody.  She knows exactly what to say, plays all the angles, and wrests network control away from her collegues because she is prepared to ignore the abyss she is dancing on. She becomes a partner in crime with the venial Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall), who shares her distaste for letting a little thing like civility get in the way of a 50-point ratings spike. And she earns both the enmity and infatuation of Max Schumacher (William Holden), a traditional newsman who studied under Edward R. Murrow, possesses some of Morrow’s class and integrity, and is now seen as a relic.

Max should know better, but he does not, and you understand why. There is something dangerously attractive about Diana. She fosters equal parts fascination and disquiet everywhere she goes. The Dunaway performance, which won her her own Oscar, is key to the success of the film, not just because her character enables the plot, but because she lends the movie the escape velocity it needs to fly. Her performance is about performance –- Diana grew up watching television, learned her lines from it, and conforms her reality to TV conventions so that it makes sense to her. She’s also smart and does not do a single wasted thing, not even when she brazenly jumps into an affair with Max, because its all fodder for the soap opera that is her life, a soap that has her coming out on top. She talks fast and intelligently towards cruel purposes, like a political ad that offers the illusion of alternate views in order to hide how slanted it is. Her every action is a sacrifice at the altar of her own success, and even later when she rekindles the affair with Max, it’s less romantic and more her attempt to quash her unrecognized moral discomfort, like when she slips into bed with him and climaxes while gasping out her plans for the Mao Tse Tung Hour, which is a reality show glorifying the antics of a terrorist group. Dunaway, who had a sexy intelligence in many of her roles, thrives in a role that couldn’t be better built for her own breathy, frightening charm.

The film unfolds with a diabolical, unforced method, as executive meetings gradually shift from worrying about a man’s health to finding the best way to exploit him for profit. The screenplay makes smart use of Hitchcock’s theory of the MacGuffin, which is the simple thing that everyone wants, and can shape a good story out of topics the audience doesn’t care about. Here, the characters talk until they’re out of breath about ratings, demographics, affiliates, and the business of television, and although we may not understand every detail, it does not matter because the importance with which they are taken is more critical. As the entire network (save Max) obsesses over overnight ratings, paying no heed to the decaying health of Howard Beale, we relate to the shared, obsessive tunnel vision that allows them to stalk the hallways of their office like predators in the jungle. The film’s sense of observation is pointed about real people with skewed priorities; it operates as both flat drama and wicked satire at the same time.

Like any good satire, the film choses its targets from all sides, and picks them off like a sharpshooter. It paints Max as a man who is smart enough to know what he’s doing when he has an affair with Diana, and yet dumb enough to do it anyway. It makes fun of not just the outrageous sensationalism of The Howard Beale Show but also the phony, demo-based rhythms that pepper every legitimate news program, where human interest stories elbow hard news out of the way. The script doesn’t just brutalize UBS for pumping out gutter programming, but also slaps the American public for slurping it up, and turning Beale’s “mad as hell” plea into the verbal equivalent over an overused Twitter hashtag. Not content with lampooning the executive drones who worship the buck, Network goes further by putting them on the other side of corporate chairman Arthur Jensen (scene-stealer Ned Beatty), who is happy to see his television division sink as long as his own pet philosophies are being extolled. And then there is the broad material with the “Ecumenical Liberation Army” terrorists, who have their own Patty Hearst proxy, eat buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken and squabble over profits with their lawyer and agent while rehearsing for their Communist propaganda.

The film operates on several planes of reality at once, and makes them all work. There’s the knowing satire about the revolutionaries, and the straight-faced boardroom scenes that feel convincing, and then the scenes on set and in the booth which have a docudrama quality. And the drama involving Diana, Max, and Max’s wife Louise (Beatrice Straight, who won an Oscar for her five minutes of screen time) is not soap but instead played straight and true, and provides a window into the other subplots, because only with Max does Diana show vulnerability, because he sees her away from the board rooms and meetings that give her purpose. “You are television incarnate,” she is told. “Indifferent to suffering, insensitive to joy. All of life is reduced to common rubble of banality. There’s nothing left in you I can live with.” Does Diana react or reject this? No. She is finally reflective and sad, as if something she has long suspected has just been affirmed. I think the film’s supposition of television as a morality neutralizer is a little unfair, but you can see its point when you take account of the world’s supply of Diana Christensens, which has grown significantly since 1976. How many people do we encounter every day that were raised on TV and grew up with broken compasses? I know one or two.

The film maintains its authenticity with the performances, which are uniformly solid despite working with material that would be so easy to overplay. Finch, of course, is electrifying in a role so frantic there are times you almost see him frothing at the mouth. Robert Duvall provides solid support as the company Hackett, and both of them are perfectly balanced by Holden, who conveys effortless dignity and class as the newsman who finds himself both victim and enabler. And then there’s Beatty as the chairman, who has one scene, but it is one of the most memorable ones.

Paddy Chayefsky’s script is rich and filled with details, and if his characters make speeches too much, the lack of subtext only helps the bold way the film finds refuge in audacity. Chayefsky was a writer during the Golden Age of Television, working for Philco Television Playhouse, Manhunt, and a dozen other shows before switching to stage and writing several successful plays. But his signature film work is probably how he’ll be remembered, with Marty (1955), and the…well, oddness of Paint Your Wagon (1969). And the thunderbolt that was Network, which was inspired by the tragic 1974 death of WXLT Florida news anchorwoman Christine Chubbuck, who killed herself on air as a response to her station owner’s desire for “more blood and guts” on their news program. Chillingly, the notes she prepared and read from that night included the suicide attempt as part of the script, with later pages adopting a third-person perspective and intermittent reports of her condition at the hospital. With this tragedy the points of reference for Network are clear – you can see traces of both Howard Beale and Diana Christensen in this behavior. Curiously, I see each of them on both sides of the camera.

Sidney Lumet (1924-2011) was one of the best directors working in Hollywood, and if he never became a household name, that is probably because he very consciously did not develop a “style.” Indeed, he resisted any temptation to stamp his films with the auteur theory – no shot choices or obvious thematic ideas identify “a Sidney Lumet film,” because he never wanted to get in the way of his own output. You see that approach in Network, which values a naturalism that contrasts the film’s descent into the absurd without damaging the fabric of either. He shoots in real New York locations, and uses sets that are clearly authentic offices with lovely views of the city. Lumet’s work never winks, does not nudge the audience, and never tips its hand about what its doing. A lot of filmmakers would approach this material and then shy away from it, underlining the satire, adding more broad humor, letting us know for the sake of their own self-image that they were only kidding. But Lumet, who also worked in television before graduating to movies, doesn’t do that, maybe because he knew any style would defuse this material, or maybe because he really wasn’t kidding.

Lumet was also the director of 12 Angry Men (1957), Fail-Safe (1964), The Pawnbroker (1964),  Serpico (1973), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), The Wiz (1978), The Verdict (1982) and countless others, ending with Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007), which is one of his very best. What connects all these movies, aside from the fact that they are very very well made? Nothing. He was a craftsman of the finest order, and wasn’t content with being an artist: he wanted to be an invisible one. He also wrote one of the finest books on filmmaking you’re ever likely to read (1996’s Making Movies), created several pieces that stand with the finest of the American movie canon, and will be celebrated wherever talent and creativity are revered and remembered. By all accounts was a humble man even in the face of great praise. “All great work,” he once said, “is preparing yourself for the accident to happen.” Like some of the best artists, he refused to quantify or oversell his art.

A tribute earlier this month mentioned Lumet as one of the last of “the great movie moralists,” which honored to old-fashioned tradition of ethical issues being front and center in a drama rather than hidden or downplayed. Indeed, although Lumet shied away from style, you certainly see flavors that he would return to time and again, including the ideas of guilt and corruption in venerable institutions: note the outrage registered with the apathetic jurors in 12 Angry Men, or the examination of police corruption in Serpico. He negotiated the thicket of family in When the Devil Knows You’re Dead, which can engender guilt like nothing else. And then there is Network, which is not about guilt except in the minds of the audience, as it takes account of a growing depravity that all members of society are complicit in. Lumet died on April 9 at the age of 86, and he left a legacy with this movie as his cornerstone. And in many ways, he got to see the vision of television he shared with Chayefsky come very close to true. I’m sure he noticed that. He was good at noticing things.


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