THE 28: #4, NETWORK (1976)
Faye Dunaway: DianaChristensen
William Holden: Max Schumacher
Peter Finch: Howard Beale
Robert Duvall: Frank Hackett
Ned Beatty: Arthur Jensen
Beatrice Straight: Louise Schumacher
Written by Paddy Chayefsky
Directed by Sidney Lumet
Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly, Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow, the panel on The View, Tomi Lahren. All of these current talking heads can trace their lineage back to one of the great characters of American cinema: Howard Beale, the anchorman who has a meltdown on national television that turns him into "the mad prophet of the airwaves." All of the aforementioned figures (and dozens of others) operate in that world of television that isn't news, but is peddled on news channels. They call it analysis and its perpetrators are deemed pundits. People like to put up a good front and say they are tired of them, but what they really mean is they are tired of the pundits from the side they disagree with. My evidence to support this is the exasperating number of posts shared on social media touting someone on television who isn't afraid to say what we're all thinking.
That was Howard Beale, the beleaguered old school newsman of Paddy Chayefksy and Sidney Lumet's pitch black satire, NETWORK. Anyone who recalls this film is probably most familiar with Howard's infamous "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore" speech and that is pretty damn epic. However, it's not the scene that defines what the movie is really trying to say. If anything, that poignant and sad public nervous breakdown on live television serves as an impetus of just how far network executives are willing to go to exploit something in the name of ratings and ad revenue. The Howard Beale storyline is just one part of much larger, more frightening (and funny) arc.
UBS is a fictional fourth network routinely struggling to attract audiences. A new programming director, Diana Christensen (played by Faye Dunaway) is brought in to shake things up. She butts head with news executive Max Schumacher over how to handle the news division, and after his on-air rant, Howard Beale. Her decision is to capitalize on the zeitgeist he creates. His job is to ramble on with passion about current events and he is supported by soothsayers (literally) and gossip columnists or anyone else with little meaningful information to share. Does that sound familiar? Diana then creates what is essentially a reality show for terrorists called "The Mao Tse Tung Hour." She is obsessed with ratings and how to increase market share. She is single-minded in her pursuit. When she begins an affair with the married Max, she even is talking about ratings mid-orgasm.
The network has created a monster in Howard Beale, though, and it's starting to hurt profits. The suits discuss this ad nauseum and this is where we really see what NETWORK is really all about. A key scene (my personal favorite in the picture) is a come-to-Jesus between Howard Beale and a UBS big wig named Arthur Jensen. He gives Beale an impassioned lecture/ass chewing about the primal forces of nature. It is glorious to behold and captures the essence of what the movie is trying to say. The board room discussion about whether or not to murder Howard is handled with the same pedantic tone as what to get for lunch. "I'd like to hear everyone's thoughts on this," says Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall).
NETWORK is widely-admired for not only its nearly flawless script, but also the performances. Dunaway is a force of nature as Diana and serves as a perfect counter to Holden's more reserved Max. They represent two ideals, of course. Peter Finch is immortalized now as Howard Beale and rightly so. Note also Beatrice Straight, Max's long-suffering wife. Their final argument when he announces he's leaving is riveting. She won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress because of her work in this scene. Chayefsky's script is crisp and the dialogue sharp with insights into the inner workings of television and human emotion.
NETWORK long served as a cautionary tale of where we were headed. As tabloid television exploded in the 80s and 90s, we scratched our heads and couldn't believe what was happening. Now, 46 years after its release, we don't bat an eye. Oh, sure, we like to pretend we are horrified. We say and post all the right outrage, but that never really prevents us from tuning in or sharing on social media.
We all have our own personal Howard Beales we like to watch. NETWORK teaches us these broadcasters aren't providing us with anything useful and its dangerous to give too much credence to what they say. After all, if NETWORK is to be believed, it's all a scam anyway.
Hollywood has been remaking a lot of movies lately and it opens up concerns that classics will get ruined. I don't think NETWORK could ever be remade with any level of effectiveness. It's not satire anymore. We are inundated with the likes of Howard Beale on an hourly basis. A reality show about a terrorist group? I know a few people who would definitely watch that. Less than a year ago, NBC hired Megyn Kelly and she granted a primetime interview to Alex Jones. Not only did NETWORK warn us this was the kind of thing that would happen, it told us to be horrified by it.