Two weeks ago, when director Sidney Lumet died at the age of 86, obituary writers had a hard time choosing which of his 40-some films to mention. His first, 12 Angry Men, had been a sensation in 1957; a half-century later, his Before the Devil Knows You're Dead had surprised audiences with its vitality. In between was Network, a film widely praised upon its release and even more so as time went by. Of all the four-star movies Sidney Lumet directed, Network is the one that eulogizers couldn't fail to mention. Why was it such a big deal when it came out, and why does it continue to be one more than three decades later? Let's get up out of our chairs, go to the window, open it, stick out our heads, and investigate.
The praise: Network opened to overwhelmingly positive reviews and enough box-office receipts to make it one of the top grossers of 1976. It was subsequently nominated for 10 Academy Awards, including best picture and director, plus five acting nods. (Eight movies before Network had earned that many nominations in the acting categories, but none has done it since.) It won in the screenplay category and in three of the four acting categories, tying A Streetcar Named Desire for the acting record. One of the wins was for supporting actress Beatrice Straight, a record-setting performance in itself: with 5 minutes and 40 seconds of screen time, it's the shortest performance to win an Oscar. Want another record? Peter Finch was the first actor to win a posthumous Oscar. The film also won four Golden Globes and a BAFTA. In 1998, Network was ranked 66th on the American Film Institute's list of the best movies ever made, moving up to 64th on the 2007 revised list. Additionally, the Writers Guild of America named Paddy Chayefsky's screenplay one of the ten best in movie history.
The context: Bronx-born Paddy Chayefsky was not quite 30 when he started writing for television in the early 1950s. He soon became one of the new medium's most respected wordsmiths, writing dramas for Philco Television Playhouse, The Gulf Playhouse, and similar series, and earning a reputation for realistic dialogue and naturalistic depictions of ordinary people. Among his early triumphs was 1953's Marty, a Philco Television Playhouse episode that was later adapted into an Oscar-winning film with Ernest Borgnine.
Chayefsky's association with television in its early, idealistic days gave him a front-row seat to the medium's descent into cynicism and sensationalism. He left TV for the movies and eventually voiced his feelings with Network, a savage satire of the TV industry. He began writing the screenplay in 1974, shortly after a TV news reporter in Florida made headlines by committing suicide on the air. Chayefsky and his producer friend, Howard Gottfried, had a deal with United Artists to finance the film, but the studio backed out when execs read the screenplay and deemed it too controversial. Then MGM offered to buy the movie, and United Artists reconsidered, eventually striking a deal with MGM to share the costs.
Network was directed by Sidney Lumet, a Philadelphia native around Chayefsky's age who had also worked extensively in the early days of live TV drama. (Lumet's first film, 12 Angry Men -- for which he was Oscar-nominated -- was an adaptation of one of those teleplays.) Lumet was enjoying a phenomenal run of success in the 1970s, having already made Serpico (1973), Murder on the Orient Express (1974), and Dog Day Afternoon (1975), for which he received an Oscar nomination. Network continued the streak and earned Lumet his third Academy Award nomination. (His fourth and final nod was for The Verdict, in 1982.)
There were only three TV networks in America in 1976, and most of the country watched the evening news on one of them every night. Walter Cronkite, the anchor for CBS Evening News, was named "the most trusted man in America" in surveys. (His daughter, Kathy, appears in Network as a Patty Hearst-inspired kidnap-victim-turned-activist.) There were no 24-hour news networks yet, no constantly updated websites, no Twitter feeds. You got your news from the daily paper and the nightly network broadcasts. Thanks to the Vietnam War and Watergate, Americans were paying more attention to their TV news anchors than ever before.
Television was making progress beyond the news departments, too. After the silly sitcoms of the '60s (Bewitched, The Beverly Hillbillies, Gilligan's Island, etc.), the networks were trying bolder, smarter series like All in the Family, and enjoying the increased notoriety that came from addressing taboo subjects. We tend to think of Network as being ahead of its time for predicting the blur between news and entertainment and the "anything for ratings" mentality. But look at what Roger Ebert wrote about the film when it was released:
We watch Peter Finch cracking up on the air, and we remind ourselves that this isn't satire, it was a style as long ago as Jack Paar. We can believe that audiences would tune in to a news program that's half happy talk and half freak show, because audiences are tuning in to programs like that. We can believe in the movie's "Ecumenical Liberation Army" because nothing along those lines will amaze us after Patty Hearst. And we can believe that the Faye Dunaway character could be totally cut off from her emotional and sexual roots, could be fanatically obsessed with her job, because jobs as competitive as hers almost require that. Twenty-five years ago, this movie would have seemed like a fantasy; now it's barely ahead of the facts.
In Ebert's view -- and presumably in Chayefsky's -- what made Network such a trenchant satire was that it was not too far removed from what TV was already like. Watching the film 30 years later, one is struck by how much TV is still like that, and even more so.
The movie: Respected TV news anchorman Howard Beale (Peter Finch) goes off-script one night after learning he is to be fired for low ratings, and declares his intention to commit suicide on TV the following week. Given an opportunity the next night to apologize and regain his dignity, Beale instead goes off on a tirade about the current state of the world. Rather than upsetting America, his rant strikes a chord -- ratings go up. The network's programming director (Faye Dunaway) sets out to exploit Beale as an "angry prophet denouncing the hypocrisies of our time." Meanwhile, the network tries to find new and innovative ways to shock viewers with its sensationalistic programming.
What it influenced: Howard Beale's most famous rant has him telling people to go to their windows and shout, "I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore!" He repeats it several times. Then people do indeed go to their windows and shout it, though some of them shout "take it" rather than "this." The line is one of the most iconic in film history, largely because it can be applied to so many situations; we can all think of things that we're mad as hell about and not going to take anymore. It's been referenced or quoted (or misquoted) in numerous films and TV shows.
Network has come to symbolize TV news of the 1970s so strongly that when a movie like Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy uses that setting, it's hard to tell whether it got its ideas from actual '70s newsrooms or Network's depiction of them. Any film about TV news that has come since Network -- Broadcast News, for example -- stands in its shadow.
Perhaps more interesting than what Network influenced are the things Network predicted but did not cause. In the film, UBS is the fictional fourth network, behind NBC, CBS, and ABC, using sensationalism to attract viewers and make a name for itself. After receiving footage of a bank robbery shot by the robbers themselves, Faye Dunaway's character hits on the idea of having the criminals film all their exploits, to be broadcast on UBS -- a completely revolutionary idea. A decade later, Fox became the real-life fourth network, made a name for itself with outrageous, controversial programming, and basically invented "reality TV" with the series Cops. (There had been a couple experiments in cameras-following-people-around TV shows in the '70s, but nothing that stuck.) Today, the idea of people filming their own activities, whether illegal, illicit, or merely ill-advised, is the basis of several TV shows, as well as the core concept behind YouTube and a sizable section of the Internet in general.
Howard Beale was a journalist who was allowed to add commentary to the news, who ultimately became more of a sideshow. The lines between fact, opinion, and entertainment got blurry. He spouted conspiracy theories that were mostly nonsense but had threads of truth running through them. Jerry Springer's TV circus isn't far removed from what the fictional Howard Beale was doing; Glenn Beck's program on Fox News is also eerily similar, though not quite as hysterical as Beale's. Even "serious" shows like the nightly network news broadcasts are aware that they must entertain as well as inform, and they have become so slick, glossy, and shallow that journalists of the '70s would hardly recognize them.
Network didn't make any of this happen, of course. Network merely observed that it was beginning to happen, and predicted how things would go if it continued to happen.
What's the big deal: The film owes much of its legacy to something its creators had no control over: the fact that it seems to be more and more relevant and accurate every day. If TV had evolved differently, Network would now be a curious artifact, a time capsule from the mid '70s that only applied to its day. But instead, it's a satire of modern TV as much as it's a satire of TV three decades ago. It's also a fine assemblage of sharp, witty performances by Peter Finch, Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Robert Duvall, Ned Beatty, and others. In a decade full of timeless movie classics, Network is more timeless than most.
Further reading: There are spoilers here, so you may want to wait until you've seen the film.
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Eric D. Snider (website) is only mildly upset and will take this for a while longer.