Scene from Network

Image courtesy of MGM/
United Artists, 1976


Still Relevant After 40 Years

| published September 20, 2016 |

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

The subspecies of social satire in Hollywood has a long tradition dating back to the 1960s, but it also has a reputation among the elites of film criticism that sometimes overstates its true impact on the moviegoer public. Some films may hit the target with dead-on perfection for the critics and the Academy, but may fizzle at the box office, and, in the end, carry little weight in the collective memory after decades have passed. Being There, starring Peter Sellers and directed by Hal Ashby, is a prime example of this phenomena: overly long, over-produced, slightly overrated despite its strong story elements and topnotch acting. The Bonfire of the Vanities, based on Tom Wolfe’s sweeping, audacious novel and directed by Brian DePalma, was a colossal misfire despite high expectations and a first-rate cast (Tom Hanks, Bruce Willis, Melanie Griffith, Morgan Freeman).

But then there are those classic cases: in the hands of the right scriptwriter and director, social satire can dazzle, entertain and remain relevant. Stanley Kubrick managed as a director to score several home runs in his career: Dr. Strangelove; A Clockwork Orange; Full Metal Jacket (social satire disguised as a war movie). And if anything, Kubrick’s best work stands the test of time so well they seem to improve with time. But then, there are those exceptional moments where the right screenplay and the right director and the right cast capture lightning in a bottle.

Such is the status of Sidney Lumet’s classic Network (1976), which has been described by many film critics as the greatest social satire ever committed to film. Network is so audacious that it is almost always described as “outrageous,” a word sometimes deployed as a near-insult, but which in this case describes a film so unflinching and unvarnished in its portrayal of the future of television news and media obsessiveness as to be one of the most prescient movies ever made. Released 40 years ago, the film can still generate chills to those who have watched the paradigm shifts in how we view the news, and how television has changed the way we entertain ourselves and consume.

Though it has its sideshow subplots, the central narrative is simple: top executives at the (fictional) last-place TV network UBC are under intense pressure. New corporate overlords in the form of a giant, conglomerate holding company called the Communications Corporation of America (CCA) have imposed demands for better ratings so that ad revenue might quickly improve, and the powerful owners have sent in their hand-picked fixer in the form of Frank Hackett (played with ruthless brilliance by Robert Duvall) to make sure things get profitable. Concurrent to this, the network’s longtime evening news anchorman, Howard Beale (played by Peter Finch), has been asked to retire because of sagging Nielsen ratings, but in a news show only days before his planned departure, Beale suffers a breakdown, threatening to kill himself on live TV. The incident, which momentarily accelerates Beale’s departure, suddenly and unexpectedly turns to UBC’s advantage as hundreds of thousands of viewers tune in to see what will happen the next night.

Realizing that they have stumbled onto something—potentially outrageous and electrifying—network executives engage in a brutal power struggle over the future of the increasingly unstable Beale and his evening news, with Old School gentleman broadcaster Max Schumacher (William Holden), head of the news department, valiantly defending the mores of professional journalism. Pitted against Schumacher and his noble but lonely stand are the ruthless Hackett, and his unlikely ally—an insatiable, ratings-obsessed workaholic named Diana Christensen, chief of programming. Christensen and Hackett want to exploit Beale’s mental instability by placing him right back on the air—live, unfiltered, and uncensored—as a shameless but effective way to generate higher ratings.

Over Schumacher’s objections, Beale goes back on the air, and each night his evening news show becomes more profane and more boisterous. Predictably, ratings accelerate with dazzling speed, and soon the patently unstable Beale becomes a folk hero to millions of Americans. On one of his most-watched nights, he rants at the camera, demanding that Americans take back control of their lives and their futures and imploring them to not spend their time locked behind their doors seeking to be left alone. “Well, I’m not going to leave you alone,” he taunts viewers, “I want you to get mad. I want you to get up out of your chairs and go to your windows and shout ‘I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!’”

Beale’s unhinged antics suddenly make his unpredictable and outrageous news program the most watched TV show in the country, and quickly elevate UBC from fourth place to first place within one short season. Beale becomes known as “the mad prophet of the airwaves.” Christensen and Hackett become the corporate superstars, and they deploy a crazy quilt of equally over-the-top venues for pandering and radical programming—from the exploits of real terrorist groups, bank robbers and political assassins, to employing the talents of paranormal spiritualists, psychics and societal cranks to augment the “news,” with Beale’s evening broadcast the centerpiece of the slick, circus-like insanity.

But when Beale accidentally stumbles onto inside information about the sale of the parent conglomerate CCA to a still larger consortium of international billionaire investors, notably oil barons in Saudi Arabia, Beale turns his on-air attention to asking his millions of TV viewers to derail the deal through a massive campaign of political pressure on Congress and regulators. The proposed multi-billion dollar mega merger/buyout collapses, sparking intervention by UBC’s parent company. Summoned to appear in the corporate boardroom, Beale is persuaded by CEO Arthur Jensen—played with electrifying perfection by Ned Beatty in one of the most memorable scenes in the movie—to tamp down his messianic populist and progressive rhetoric and replace it instead with a capitalist template of consumerism, materialistic dogma, financial scripture and economic Darwinism.

“You have meddled with the primal forces of nature, Mr. Beale,” Jensen bellows at the hapless anchorman, “and I won’t have it.” The compliant Beale, now sold on Jensen’s vision of a world managed by “a campus of corporate interests,” immediately changes his tune on air each night, preaching instead a message that the world is governed by data, spreadsheets and the tidal flow of dollars, yen, marks, lira and pounds.

Ratings begin to fall, and soon the network executives at UBC are in a blind panic. Their solution is to arrange for the assassination of anchorman Howard Beale on live TV. Radical militants are hired to complete the deed, and Beale is shot in front of a dozen cameras, a huge studio audience and millions watching at home. In a mosaic of TV images at the end of the movie, we see the murder replayed—ad nauseum—in slow motion and from various camera angles—by UBC and by its news competitors—interspersed profitably with banal commercials for consumer products such as breakfast cereal and laundry detergent.

What was considered fantastical and outrageous in 1976 now seems vividly prophetic. Based on the screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky, Network was written with an absurdist’s eye for the cultural arc of television news and the inevitable dumbing-down envisioned by some of the Tube’s harshest social critics. In fact, the prescience of the film is so inescapable that this movie seems ever more relevant with each passing year, and the film’s dead-on satire is savage, and more “truthful” now than ever before.

Scriptwriter Chayefsky and director Lumet each had connections with television from its infancy, from their separate work and occasional collaborations in the earliest days of TV production, to the American Kammerspiel, the “Small Film” movement in the 1950s which sought to fuse the traditional filmmaker’s art with the newer techniques being explored by TV drama. One of the first significant works from that period was Marty, based on a TV script by Chayefsky, directed by Delbert Mann and produced independently of the major studios. Marty, which starred Ernest Borgnine as an introverted butcher, was shot in black and white on a low budget using film equipment but incorporating the loose visual composition and camera movements of TV drama (at the height of TV’s live drama period). Marty won top honors that year and handed Borgnine an Oscar, and the film quickly inspired many others to follow suit. Chayefsky—like his small film contemporaries Rod Serling (Requiem for a Heavyweight) and Reginald Rose (12 Angry Men), would go on to script other “Small Films,” including The Catered Affair (1956), The Bachelor Party (1957), and Middle of the Night (1959). Directors like Sidney Lumet would find their voice based largely on their early experiences in TV and in the fusion film and cinema found in the “Small Film” movement.

Lumet was no stranger to success in the dozen years leading to Network. He had already proved his mettle as a powerful director with Fail Safe (1964), Serpico (1973), Murder on the Orient Express (1974) and Dog Day Afternoon (1975), and his reputation for extracting mesmerizing, Oscar-caliber performances from his actors was legendary. Dog Day Afternoon (Al Pacino, John Cazale), one could argue, had been something of a dress rehearsal for Network, for the prior film had demonstrated—with McLuhan-esque irony—the brutal fusion of television’s inordinate and often distortional impact on everyday events and personal struggles: a botched, amateurish bank robbery which spirals into an exploitative live TV news event.

Indeed, Lumet’s vast technical knowledge of TV may have in fact made him the ideal director to take on the provocative material found in the screenplay for Network, a script deemed both commercially risky and dangerously controversial when it was first shown to the major studios. In fact, United Artists rejected Chayefsky’s script outright even though he had the support of producer Howard Gottfried. Only later, after a skeptical MGM finally agreed to take on the movie did UA re-enter as a full partner.

Network remains electrifying in large part because of its cast: William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Robert Duval, Peter Finch, Ned Beatty and Beatrice Straight all deliver shattering performances, and much of this is due to Lumet’s directorial skill. (Straight, who won an Oscar for her role as Holden’s wife, holds the unusual record of least total screen time for any Academy winner, male or female). Finch and Dunaway each won top honors for actor and actress for 1976, and Chayefsky won for best screenplay. Other outstanding performances come from William Prince as Edward Ruddy, the UBS CEO, Lane Smith as Robert McDonough, and Conchata Ferrell as Barbara Schlesinger. Network benefits mightily from Lumet’s skillful direction of this diverse ensemble cast.

Still, the film’s singular mark in cinematic history is its chilling prescience. In 1976 television news was still a medium whose standards were set by the likes of Walter Cronkite, John Chancellor, David Brinkley and Frank Reynolds. But it was a business already in flux from corporate pressures and the far-reaching ripple effect of Watergate: though it was largely the work of newspaper reporters, Richard Nixon’s downfall helped to greatly accelerate the already swift ascension of television news and the eventual transformation of news into profit-making entertainment.

Chayefsky and Lumet managed in that fleeting moment to envision a media world still decades away: a cacophony we now call home, a land of Rush Limbaugh, Keith Olbermann, Glenn Beck, Nancy Grace, Bill Maher; of Survivor and The Bachelorette; The Simpson’s, The Family Guy, Married With Children; Big Brother and American Idol; Jerry Springer, Maury Povich, Judge Judy, Howard Stern; Dr. Phil and The Doctors; COPS; Fear Factor, 16 & Pregnant; Jersey Shore; Jackass; UFC and Girls Gone Wild; all things Brittney, Lindsay, Madonna; skycam car chases, wild police pursuits, helicopter-view bank robberies; the forced retirement of Dan Rather; police shootings; endless video loops of jetliners puncturing the World Trade Center; the reality show combat of Presidential candidates in an interminable series of televised “debates” on Fox News and CNN; Donald Trump, Marco Rubio, Red Cruz and others calling each other liars on live TV; TV “dramas” dominated by shows structured around vampires, zombies and serial killers.

Network improves with age for that very reason alone. The greatest social satire ever committed to the screen is also a movie of unparalleled resonance, a prophetic vision of a media world obsessed with ratings and trapped by prurient voyeurism and glitzy self-importance.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Reflections on the 50th Anniversary of Star Trek; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; September 18, 2016.

Six Movies That Made me Pee in my Pants Laughing; Keith H. Roberts; Thursday Review; August 13, 2015.