Sometime during the last thirty years, Network has gone from an outrageous, absurdist comedy to almost a documentary. Almost. While some of its points about reality television, media consolidation and news-as-entertainment seem eerily prescient, fortunately not all of it has come true. Dan Rather was not gunned down during his last broadcast and, to the best of my knowledge, the Communist Party never had its own network series.
Even after three decades, this movie is still one of the most intelligent, biting indictments of television excess ever produced. The sharp, literate, Oscar-winning script by Paddy Chayefsky still has the power to stoke your anger even while it sends you dashing off to find a thesaurus.
UBS is the bottom rung of the four television networks (This was days before Fox, UPN and The WB) and Howard Beale (Peter Finch) is no longer the dean of network news anchors. He’s lost his wife, started drinking and, worst of all, his ratings are down. The network, which has been purchased by a massive media conglomerate called CCA, finally runs out of patience and fires him, effective in two weeks. He responds by saying, on the air, that he’s going to blow his brains out on national TV.
Needless to say, when the people in the control booth finally realize what Howard has said, they have him yanked off the air and he’s fired, effectively immediately. He begs his friend, head of the news division, Max Shumacher (William Holden) for one last chance to say good-bye properly to his audience. Max relents and Howard goes on to say that he obviously went a little crazy last night and, after fourteen years on the air, he was just tired of all the “bullshit.”
This gets Howard fired again and Max along with him. It seems that the network thinks letting Beale back on the air was an act of spite because the new owners of UBS were tampering with the independence of Max’s beloved news division.
Then something strange happens. The audience loved Howard’s blunt honesty. This attracts the attention of Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway), a ruthlessly ambitious programming executive who sees ratings gold in Howard’s rantings. She sells the idea to Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall), CCA’s reptilian, mercenary hatchet man. Suddenly both Howard and Max have their jobs back.
However, it’s become increasingly clear to Max that Howard has gone insane after he starts talking about voices speaking to him and their revelations. Max wants Howard off the air and into treatment. Hackett only sees the ratings numbers and they’re through the roof, so he fires Max (again).
That night, Howard stumbles in out of the rain, dressed only in his pajamas and a trenchcoat, goes on the air with his famous rant. Things are bad and they’re not going to change until people get mad, so he wants to people to go their windows and shout, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore.”
When people all over the country start doing just that, Diana exults, “We’ve hit the mother lode!”
Suddenly the UBS news resembles Wheel of Fortune more than anything. The show employs a psychic, and gossip columnist and, of course, Howard Beale, “The Mad Prophet of the Airwaves.” The show is a smash and Diana is on top of the UBS food chain. The network even greenlights her idea for something that suspiciously resembles what we now call a “reality show,” about a radical Marxist terrorist group that closely resembles the Symbionese Liberation Army.
Things don’t stay rosy for long, because Howard reveals on air that CCA, parent company of UBS, is itself being bought out by a Saudi Arabian conglomerate. The deal is threatened and CCA desperately needs the Saudi money to stay afloat. Howard is called on the carpet by the uber-capitalistic head of CCA, Arthur Jensen (Ned Beatty), who delivers the new gospel in the film’s second most famous speech in a messianic tone that carefully matches Howard’s “mad prophet” rantings. Nations are dead, corporations are the new power and you, Howard Beale, have upset the natural order of things. Howard is to be Jensen’s messenger of this new order. “Why me?” he asks. “Because you’re on television, dummy.”
Howard, whose madness has left him very pliable, takes the new corporate message to heart and his ratings sink, but Jensen won’t let him be taken off the air. His message is too important. That leaves Hackett and Diana in a bit of bind, searching for another way to “cancel” Howard Beale.
The film has numerous subplots that mirror and comment on the main story. Max’s affair with Diana not only shows the old school newsman and, by extension, network news itself, seduced by the ratings obsessed new reality of the business, it’s also through Max’s eyes that we see Diana’s human side, or her lack thereof. This is a woman whose idea of pillow talk involves syndication packages for James Bond movies. Her reality show, The Mao Tse Tung Hour, gives us the surreal spectacle of dedicated Communist radicals negotiating with button-down network executives for distribution deals and residuals. It’s another riff on the film’s theme of the seductiveness of television. Anyone who’s ever watched the degree to which people debase themselves to be on our current crop of reality television will realize that these scenes, no matter how far over the top, contain elements of truth.
The real strength of Network is how, even as the satire goes from bizarre to outlandish, the movie’s characters seem grounded in reality. The portrayal of networks news at the time looks dead on and the people seem to have stepped right off the same streets you and I walk. It doesn’t hurt that you have a high-caliber cast that took home three acting Oscars for this film. Only actors like Dunaway and Duvall could have brought off the scene in which Dianna and Hackett discuss possible solutions to the “Beale problem.” At that point, we’ve stepped out of network news and into a scene from The Godfather.
As I said at the beginning, some of the plot elements of this movie seem genuinely prophetic. Maybe by 1976, predicting corporate consolidation and show-biz-ization of network news was as easy as predicting the sunrise, but no film got closer to the truth and none have done it better.