The Mad Prophet of the Airwaves, by Bob Connally

20 Jun

Of all the movies on my top ten favorites of all-time list I knew this would be the most difficult one to write about. Not because I have any less enthusiasm for it or anything less to say about it than the others, but because Network has been written about so thoroughly in the 41 years since it first arrived that it’s hard to find new things to say. We don’t need another article expounding upon how relevant the 1976 masterpiece is today. Seriously, just type “network 1976 relevant today” into Google and see what happens. Then after your computer has exploded go buy a new one and finish reading this article.

Instead of drawing parallels between the events of the film- which at the time were considered sensational and satirical- and the current landscape of television and online news, I’ll try to keep the focus on the movie itself.

Right away, Network reveals itself to be a unique film. Its opening credits are unusual in that it does not announce itself as “A Sidney Lumet Film.” Rather, the four lead actors are credited, followed by, “Network,” and, “by Paddy Chayefsky.” Director Sidney Lumet opens the movie by attributing it to the writer as though it were a play. Chayefsky had in fact written many stage plays and live television productions and plays tend to have a heightened style of writing and acting. As my community college drama teacher loved to say- really, he said this practically every day to the point of it becoming annoying- “Drama is larger than life.” Chayefsky embraced this philosophy whole-heartedly writing Network and Lumet and the cast followed suit.

Less than 10 minutes into the movie, Howard Beale (Peter Finch), the network anchor for the UBS Evening News announces that due to his upcoming dismissal he is going to kill himself live on the air the following Tuesday. It’s not delivered desperately or with a hint of sadness. He’s even still thinking about his show’s declining ratings saying, “That should give the public relations people a week to promote the show. …A fifty share. Easy.” What’s telling about the response of the characters is that in the following scene Howard is in a room full of UBS employees and executives who are talking about him as though he isn’t there. There’s no concern for Howard’s mental state or well-being with all of the focus on how the network will handle this public embarrassment. There is only one exception. Only Howard’s old friend Max Schumacher (William Holden), the president of the news division, actually addresses him.

Things only get worse for them when against his better judgment Max gives Howard the chance to apologize on the next night’s broadcast. Instead, Howard delivers a rant about the “pointless pain, humiliation and decay,” of life. This leads to the immediate firing of both Howard and Max but much to their surprise they’re both quickly re-instated.

While Howard and Max have been working in television practically since its inception, Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) is the young new head of programming at UBS. Knowing the network’s desperate need for a hit show she convinces Executive Senior Vice President Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall) to let her get her hands on the news. Howard Beale will be, “an angry latter-day prophet denouncing the hypocrisies of our times.” The Howard Beale Show becomes the biggest smash on television while America embraces his on air rants which, “articulate the popular rage.” Meanwhile, Howard continues to descend into a mental breakdown and the married Max foolishly begins an affair with Diana.

I first saw Network about 14 years ago while I was in college. It was one of the best movies I had ever seen to that point and it still is. Caustically funny, Chayefsky’s screenplay is packed with incredible rants. Most are delivered by Finch who deservedly won the Academy Award for Best Actor though sadly it was posthumously. The most famous rant is one that even people who’ve never seen Network will recognize. “I want you to get up right now and go to the window,” he manically instructs his viewers while he wears a raincoat on the air. “Open it and stick your head out and yell, ‘I’M AS MAD AS HELL AND I’M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!’” He repeats this like a mantra and in a beautifully directed scene, we see an apartment complex full of New Yorkers following his orders to the letter. Watching the movie now there is an extra layer for viewers that would not have been there in 1976. It’s unimaginable anymore that so many people would be watching the same news program at the same time. It reminds us just how much power network TV had in an era before cable, home video, or the internet.

Diana, Frank, and the rest of the UBS brass are thrilled with Howard while the American public embraces his unhinged declamations. Once again, it is only Max who cares about Howard as a human being, believing that his longtime friend is in need of psychiatric treatment. Upon telling his UBS superiors of his belief, Max is promptly fired and this time it sticks.

For his part, Howard insists, “This is not a psychotic breakdown; it’s a cleansing moment of clarity.” However, both Max and the audience know the sad truth but as long as the ratings are high, Diana wants Howard to keep shouting as loudly as he can. It doesn’t matter that he’s insisting to his viewers that, “Television is not the truth!… Television is a circus, a carnival, a traveling troupe of acrobats, storytellers, dancers, singers, side-show freaks, lion tamers, and football players.” It doesn’t even matter that he shouts, “[T]urn off your television sets…. Turn them off and leave them off!” Because no matter what he says, the audience cannot tear themselves away and it’s improved the UBS network’s fortunes dramatically.

These scenes highlight Chayefsky’s very blunt criticism of his film’s own audience, many of which would have been from Diana’s generation. Dunaway for her part is as brilliant as Finch and also like Finch won an Oscar for her efforts. While Diana is not suffering a mental breakdown the way Howard is, Dunaway plays the character almost as unhinged as Finch portrays Beale. “I seem to be inept at everything except my work,” she freely tells Max on their first date. “All I want out of life is a 30 share and a 20 rating.” Max knows that this relationship is doomed and that he’s getting himself into a world of hurt while also breaking his wife’s (Beatrice Straight) heart. Chayefsky saves his biggest criticism of the first generation raised on television for the inevitable breakup scene. “You’re television incarnate,” he tells her. “Indifferent to suffering; insensitive to joy. …You’re madness, Diana. Virulent madness. And everything you touch dies with you.”

Holden provides Network its grounded center and its conscience. That Max is the only character through the entire film who puts Howard’s well-being above ratings and spectacle is one of the key aspects of this movie that tends to be overlooked. Holden’s more naturalistic performance tends to get lost in the shuffle as well but without it, Network wouldn’t be half the movie that it is. We need him to be the voice of reason. The performance did earn him a nomination for Best Actor, which he of course lost to Finch.

The rest of the cast of Network is equally spectacular. People forget how funny Robert Duvall is and Beatrice Straight won Best Supporting Actress with 5 minutes and change of screen time. With only slightly more than that, Ned Beatty received a Best Supporting Actor nomination for maybe my favorite scene in any movie ever. “YOU HAVE MEDDLED WITH THE PRIMAL FORCES OF NATURE, MR. BEALE AND I WON’T HAVE IT! Is that clear?!” It is a blazingly brilliant scene in which Beatty as the head of the company which now owns UBS explains to Howard that the world is a business, persuading the “Mad Prophet of the Airwaves” to “preach this evangel.” Preaching this rather depressing “gospel of corporate cosmology” is what finally causes Howard’s audience to turn on him.

By now, Network’s ending in which Howard Beale is assassinated on the air at the orders of Diana Christensen and Frank Hackett is the stuff of movie legend. Lumet shows us how the UBS cameras capture his murder, as it cuts to several different angles and as he falls to the floor, they push in for a close up. The narrator matter-of-factly closes the movie with, “This was the story of Howard Beale: The first known instance of a man who was killed because he had lousy ratings.” There are a few lines like this throughout Network which lead me to believe that Ron Howard used this film’s narration as inspiration for his voice over work on Arrested Development.

Lumet directs Network with a light touch and without a musical score, allowing Chayefsky’s dialogue and the performances to provide the fireworks. Yes, it’s true that this film is relevant today but even if TV news hadn’t become what it has, Network would be no less of a masterpiece. It’s the kind of movie where everything works absolutely perfectly and at an extraordinarily high level. There’s a vibrancy to it that always makes it exciting to watch time after time. “Music up with a swell; final commercial. And here are a few scenes from next week’s show.”

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