Written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Sidney Lumet, Network (1976) is a sardonic, dark-comic satire of America at the very moment that its trajectory of decline became apparent (to perceptive eyes, at least).
Network has an outstanding script and incandescent performances, which were duly recognized. Chayefsky won the Oscar for Best Screenplay. Peter Finch won the Oscar for Best Actor for his portrayal of TV anchorman Howard Beale. Faye Dunaway won Best Actress for playing the reptilian cynical career girl Diana Christensen. William Holden turns in a warm and credible performance of TV news executive Max Schumacher. Beatrice Straight plays Schumacher’s wife Louise. She won Best Supporting Actress for basically one scene, where she denounces her cheating husband, a measure of the talent this movie lavished on even minor roles. Robert Duvall is a convincingly loathsome corporate creep named Frank Hackett. Maureen Warfield is electrifying and utterly hilarious as my favorite character, Laureen Hobbs, who introduces herself as a “bad-ass commie nigger.”
Remarkably, Network has no film score, and it is not really missed. The script and performances stand on their own. We don’t need violins to tell us what to feel.
Network is a serious movie of ideas. What’s more, these ideas are objectively Right-wing, even though that may not have been the intention of Chayefsky and Lumet.
Network offers a scathing tableau of the cynicism, corruption, and propagandistic agenda of the mainstream media, one of the cultural citadels of the Left. Network offers a particularly dark portrait of a scheming, sociopathic career woman (Faye Dunaway’s Diana Christiansen) who sleeps with a married superior.
Network also portrays the sixties generation, then rising into positions of influence, as cynical and decadent—disdaining the morals and basic decency of their parents’ generation as mere sentiment. Indeed, Network portrays the Marxist-terrorist fringe of the Sixties Left as clownish hysterical thugs who instantly sell-out when offered a TV contract.
But Network’s Right-wing themes that resonate the most today center around the conflict between nationalism and populism on the one hand and globalism and elitism on the other.
The plot of Network is fairly simple. Howard Beale (played by Peter Finch) is the evening news anchor at America’s fourth television network, UBS, which stands for Union Broadcasting System, but it sounds like “You BS,” which means something very different. Beale has been declining personally and professionally for some time, and finally his old friend Max Schumacher (William Holden), the head of the News Division, was forced to fire him. The two got roaring drunk, and when Howard tells Max he plans to kill himself on the air, Max playfully suggests that it would get a hell of a rating. Then he reels off a whole list of equally lurid shows, which at the time seemed like an obscene parody, but seem like old hat to today’s generation, who have easy online access to terrorist and cartel murder videos.
Of course Max was not serious, and he did not dream that Howard would actually go through with it. But Howard really does go on the air the next day and announce that he will kill himself on live television. The network, of course, cuts the camera. But the stunt garners enormous attention.
Howard begs to go back on the air the next day to say a more dignified goodbye, but when he broadcast goes live, he launches into a tirade about having run out of “bullshit.” (This is “You BS,” after all.) The broadcast is a hit, but both Max and Howard are canned by the UBS brass, who think gutter language is beneath the dignity of their television network. (Those were the days.)
Enter Faye Dunaway’s character Diana Christensen, who is in charge of entertainment programming. She, along with fellow young cynic Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall), persuade UBS to keep Beale on the air for much-needed ratings. (UBS is struggling in fourth rank.) As Diana puts it, “Howard Beale is processed instant God, and right now it looks like he may just go over bigger than Mary Tyler Moore.”
What sends Beale into ratings heaven is his famous “Mad as Hell” tirade, which seems even more poignant in the age of Trump and Brexit and at the brink of a global depression.
I don’t have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. It’s a depression. Everybody’s out of work or scared of losing their job, the dollar buys a nickel’s worth, banks are going bust, shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter, punks are running wild in the streets, and there’s nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do, and there’s no end to it.
We know the air’s unfit to breathe and our food is unfit to eat, and we sit and watch our TVs while some local newscaster tells us today, we had fifteen homicides and sixty-three violent crimes, as if that’s the way it’s supposed to be. We all know things are bad. Worse than bad. They’re crazy. It’s like everything’s going crazy.
So we don’t go out any more. We sit in the house, and slowly the world we live in gets smaller, and all we ask is please, at least leave us alone in our own living rooms. Let me have my toaster and my TV and my hair-dryer and my steel-belted radials, and I won’t say anything, just leave us alone.
Well, I’m not going to leave you alone. I want you to get mad—I don’t want you to riot. I don’t want you to protest. I don’t want you to write your congressmen. Because I wouldn’t know what to tell you to write. I don’t know what to do about the depression and the inflation and the defense budget and the Russians and crime in the street.
All I know is first you’ve got to get mad. You’ve got to say: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore. I’m a human being, goddammit. My life has value.” So I want you to get up now. I want you to get out of your chairs and go to the window. Right now. I want you to go to the window, open it, and stick your head out and yell. I want you to yell: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!”—Get up from your chairs. Go to the window. Open it. Stick your head out and yell and keep yelling . . .
There is a deep political truth here. Before we can have any political change at all, the people need to be angry. But for the people to get angry, they have to be assertive. And to be assertive, we require self-esteem. It is an amazingly dramatic sequence. If you don’t find it stirring, check your pulse, because you might be dead.
In her bid to take over Beale’s show, Diana begins an affair with Max Schumacher, who is old enough to be her father and married to boot. Max, however, is disgusted by the desire to exploit Howard Beale, who has obviously gone insane. (Howard shows clear signs of mania.) Eventually, however, Christensen and Hackett team up to fire Schumacher. Then Christensen turns the UBS news program into The Howard Beale Show, a grotesque variety program featuring Howard as “The Mad Prophet of the Airwaves.”
Diana argues that Howard is popular because he is “articulating the popular rage.” She wants a whole new slate of angry, anti-establishment programming. Diana, mind you, doesn’t want to change society to make people less angry. She simply wants to exploit popular discontent and channel it into ratings and money. She wants to make it into a commodity. This is brought home brilliantly in Howard’s first speech on The Howard Beale Show.