Network, the 1976 powerhouse of a motion picture, in which its statements on national and world politics, Hollywood, the television industry, and the human population in general resonate more relevant in today’s age than ever before, celebrates its 40th anniversary this week.
Directed by Sidney Lumet, with an Academy Award-winning screenplay written by the genius small and big screen writer Paddy Chayefsky, Network, originally released on November 27th, 1976, doesn’t pull any punches whatsoever, in terms of its script, narrative, themes and especially its performances. Faye Dunaway leads an ensemble group of Hollywood’s finest, including William Holden, Ned Beatty, and Robert Duvall, all of whom explode across the screen while naturally spouting dialogue of the highest intellectual and emotional order.
Centered around Howard Beale, the film’s protagonist (played by Peter Finch, who posthumously and deservedly won the Academy Award for Best Actor), is a character who becomes an unlikely accidental superstar of television when he starts spouting messianic wisdom after suffering what appears to be a nervous breakdown after he is fired from his TV news anchorman job for the fictional UBS television. (A basic stone’s throw from the early version of the real FOX TV). Beale is allowed to give a farewell statement on the air before he is dismissed from the company, which denigrates into profanity-laced tirades and starts to pick up audience steam by way of curiosity, eventually ballooning the anchor and his show — which is supposed to be a “newscast” but instead is a three-ring circus filled with soothsayers, astrologers, and weather prognosticators, into a key player in the industry. It’s not without a heavy price, though, as the callousness of Dunaway’s programming director and Duvall’s high corporate ranking UBS decision maker exploit Beale and the program into a dead end, which will eventually have to be satisfied in the most gruesome ways. When all is said and done, what Network has shown the viewer most of all, by way of Chayefsky’s vision, is the carelessness and irresponsible ultimate matter an organization goes through “carefully.” In other words, beneath the smooth, oiled veil of what we see on television, how it is run and presented, especially in broadcast news divisions, a rowdy vicious ragtag mess of insecurity and ruthlessness exists.
Beale’s rants illustrate the popular rage of John Q Public, says Dunaway in the film, and she is correct. To watch Finch as Beale spout the gems of eye-opening wisdom from the pen of Chayefsky is mesmerizing, some of the film’s greatest and thought-provoking scenes. When Beale’s spits relevant drivel about how barely any of the American public who incessantly watches television reads books or newspapers (physical newspapers mind you, no iPad yet on the horizon in 1976), you could easily just slot in the line “and goes on their technology way too much” and the entire piece would seem fresh and as relevant as the present you are reading this in at this very moment. There’s always a kind of a relief when one remarks on how something is still so “fresh” and “undated” that it’s great that its messages and themes remain timeless and the chassis to keep the narrative of a project alive spanning generations. The ultimate sad but true fact of Network and the world we live in is that our world is, 40 years later, filled with even more uphill challenges, and the world of 1976 is a Disneyland comparative to the razor blades we metaphorically walk on daily in the world of 2016. But yet Network is speaking about the ills of 1976, and it’s sad to think that a film like it, with messages that are giving us the black eye as we are looking at them, can still hold up. And they hold up mainly only for the reason that world is still terribly sick and that we are all still, as a human populous, mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.
That pivotal scene in Network, replete with a soggy, rain-jacketed Beale at his (and Chayefsky’s) peak, in which he summons the entire viewing public of his program, and that would mean millions of viewers, to get up out of their chairs that they are comfortably watching him in, and run to their windows and open them and scream out of them “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!!” is a tidal wave of release for the film, the story, the viewer and ultimately the whole shebang of what Network stands for. And in the film, the fictional Howard Beale Show audience does flock to the window, in droves, to articulate their rage by the host’s almost hypnotic command, to the shock of people like Holden, but to the greedy delight of people like Dunaway, who only sees her and her company’s stock astronomically rising, and not seeing the astronomically falling of a fragile human being in Beale. What we see is an illustration of the power of television and how it can blindly lead and how it can also misleadingly and tantalizingly blind, sometimes all at once. (The line from the film as Beale says it is “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” but when the viewers shout from the window, most revise it to “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”, which remains the most oft quoted in Network, and one of greatest, most memorable quotes in contemporary cinema history.)
Lumet directs the action in Network intimately, and even when scenes are stretched out of the UBS studios and offices, everything still feels like a kind of stage play, like the loud, raucous, uninhibited ones that David Mamet would go on to gloriously capture so well in his career. And like those plays, Lumet lets his actors run free. After all, the core team of characters are mainly Hollywood veterans and professionals who Lumet could trust. Each instinct by each character, even when it borderlines on parody or black humor, which Network has components of, is still real, truthful, honest, and earnest to their characters, even if their characters are scoundrels. It keeps the audience riveted, even if there aren’t many characters to root for, Beale included, who, although we are more of a witness to his first-hand mental breakdown, still seems to exhibit traits of doing all this for some sort of attention. Even the wife of William Holden’s character (Beatrice Straight), when she learns of his infidelity in their marriage and emotionally collapses and then pulls herself together in a masterful five or so minute performance that won Straight an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress and set a record for winning for such a short performance on screen, is another well-etched figure, another character of complexity that the film is full of, but also just short of full emotion in the heart department or so it seems.
Maybe this is all exactly playing into Chayefsky’s bigger picture, which he had gone on record talking about when doing press for Network on talk shows during 1976-1977, that Network’s main objective in its narrative is showing the audience that as a human race, we have “lost our capability to love.” The film shows that we have and doesn’t offer any solutions, but to be fair, Network isn’t a film with a happy ending by any stretch of the imagination, just one that kind of leaves things in a tragic ether. Network’s success and what keeps it so strong still in the minds of many film buffs and historians, is that through all the noise and yelling and big words and ideas, it asks you to think. The joy comes from the film exposing what we knew all along, our own popular rage for the ills of society, public and politic. It doesn’t beat us over the head with it, but it’s loud enough to make sure we hear it. It grabs you by the collar for sure, but it doesn’t pummel you. Network gets you involved and engaged, and then when it ends, allows you to make your own personal decisions and thoughts about the film. Any film in which you glean something from it is a positive; any film that does it and is critically lauded as a rightful masterpiece, is a bonus.
One of the taglines for Network was “Prepare Yourself For A Perfectly Outrageous Motion Picture” and that is exactly as true of a statement one could give about the film and which deftly sums it up. Since it’s probable that after 40 years there are many newer generations who haven’t seen Network, one is to heed that tagline carefully, because it’s true, and it’s a movie that will jolt your senses by way of the dialogue, and not by the action, yet it still contains the kind of electricity and verve contained in those high-octane action yarns. When was the last time a movie with that kind of formula jolted one like that? See for yourself or revisit why 40 years later, Network’s antenna still runs sky high with viewers.