“I want you to get up right now, sit up, go to your windows, open them and stick your head out and yell – ‘I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!’”
When you consider the number of Academy Awards that were won by the cast of writer Paddy Chayefsky’s satirical masterpiece Network, it’s surprising to learn how few people have seen it. However, considering the subject matter and the stunningly portrayed social commentary, you realise that this 1976 classic is still applicable and thought-provoking today.
Director Sidney Lumet’s (12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon) 24th film takes place in and around the Union Broadcasting System (UBS), a low-rated television network, in a city where money is the natural order and shock and horror have become the basis of high ratings. In a city like this, anchor Howard Beale’s monotonous evening news report has become unsuccessful and leads to his being fired. This revelation sweeps Beale – played by Peter Finch – into a spiral of drinking and depression… and that’s when things get interesting. After announcing his on-air suicide – following a realisation that it would boost his ratings – Beale is thrown off the air. However, the incredible response to his on-air tirade makes his superiors realise that his instability has turned him into an entertaining commodity.
Finch portrays Beale’s descent into madness perfectly as he rises to the role of a “latter day prophet, denouncing the hypocrisies of our time”, whilst his co-workers and corporate puppeteers attempt to control the delirious goldmine. Along with Finch is Faye Dunaway as Diana Christensen, an unfeeling, unyielding entertainment executive who embodies the idea of the scripted, drama-orientated television industry and can’t exist without it. This makes for an incredibly amusing sequence as she goes on a romantic weekend with News division head Max Schumacher (played by William Holden) and substitutes casual conversation and intimate pillow talk with a running update of programming changes and syndication. Holden’s Schumacher successfully brings the plot down to earth as he is caught between promoting Howard Beale to save his news division, and protecting Beale from the exploitation of the network as he becomes increasingly detached from reality.
Beale’s talk show inevitably becomes a hit as he articulates the popular rage and tells people to get “mad as hell” – which at this point in the film becomes a fairly ironic thing for the deluded Beale to declare. What becomes apparent as you watch these executives exploit Beale’s brilliance (including stone faced powerhouse Robert Duvall as company Hatchet Frank Hackett for the company that owns UBS) is that Chayefsky’s script is even more relevant to the nature of television today than it was when it was released over three decades ago. When you consider the prominence of TV evangelists and political orators in America, as well as the reality programmes that thrive on shock, drama and disgust both here and overseas, you begin to see that Chayefsky was years if not decades ahead of his time with regards to his portrayal of UBS and the sardonic nature of the executives therein.
Of course, the bitter-sweet turnaround for Hackett and Christensen is when Beale learns that the owners of UBS will be bought out by a Saudi Arabian conglomerate, and proceeds to preach his outrage at the take-over to his millions of viewers. Beale becomes a liability and, after the owner of UBS attempts to drill his own political message into Beale’s on-air discourse, his dip in ratings leads to a network plot to kill him that oozes with blunt candour.
Between scenes in which a terrorist leader and a communist activist argue about distribution rights and the portrayal of the New York skyline as a grey plateau of indistinguishable buildings, Network employs a compelling blend of individual suffering and social critique to illustrate the terrifying power of television. Chayefsky has a bold and daring sweep to his brush that can still get people as mad as hell, in a way that is still so hard to find in modern cinema.