This article kicks off the Sidney Lumet Blogathon! All this week I’ll be bringing you various bloggers’ analyses of films by one of the most fascinating American directors of all time, Sidney Lumet.
Network is a movie that amazes with its audacity, its resilience and its long-lived prescience. It’s almost incredible that it got made in the first place, still more incredible that it was a huge hit, and absolutely astounding that not only has it aged well after 40 years, but it’s probably gotten even more brilliant and far-sighted than it was upon its initial release in 1976. It’s probably the crowning achievement in Sidney Lumet’s career as well as the careers of several others involved in it (Faye Dunaway, Paddy Chayefsky, Peter Finch, William Holden, etc.) Few films have ever turned such an incisive mirror upon the utter madness of media in the modern world. Although times and television have changed a lot in 40 years, if you read between the lines of Network you can see a number of issues that look from the vantage point of 2016 like very stern and sober warnings about how bad things could become. True to form, our society and media culture has heeded exactly none of them, and the crazy world of Network is unfortunately the reality in which we’re imprisoned.
Network is a movie about television. (Spoilers). In September 1975, Howard Beale (Peter Finch), the anchor for the evening news of the fictional UBS television network, is fired for poor ratings, after even his old friend Max Schumacher (William Holden), head of the news division, can’t save his job. Beale seems to go quite crazy, announcing first that he’ll commit suicide on-air during his farewell broadcast, and then taking to going on bizarre rants about how insane the modern world is. When UBS programming exec Diana Christiansen (Faye Dunaway) realizes that Beale is suddenly a ratings bonanza, she convinces network boss Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall), who’s angling for perks from UBS’s corporate owners, to let her redesign the news hour around Beale–who she knows is psychologically disturbed–as the “mad prophet of the airwaves.” Max tries to keep the network on some reasonable grounding as they exploit Beale, in Max’s words, as “a sideshow freak,” but he begins to lose his objectivity as he’s drawn into a tragic and reckless affair with Diana. Ultimately Beale becomes more of a liability to the network than an asset, and, unable to take him off the air, Diana and Frank coldly plot his assassination on national TV, using it as a launching pad for a new hit show centered around terrorism.
Network is the perfect Sidney Lumet film. It’s set in and it’s about New York City, and it deals with the sort of uncomfortable high-level moral and ethical issues that Lumet was so brilliant at exploring onscreen. Its real strength is in its writing, by veteran television scrivener Paddy Chayefsky, which needs a sensitive but hard-hitting director to make it sing the way it should. And Network is ground zero for some of the most intense actors’ performances you’ll ever see in motion pictures. Lumet’s careful direction pulled no less than three Academy Award-winning performances out of the ensemble cast, with Peter Finch, Faye Dunaway and Beatrice Straight (as Max’s long-suffering wife) all taking home gold for their trouble. Tightly edited, beautifully shot, masterfully scored, Network is as much a crowning technical achievement in film as it is a creative one. The movie showcases Lumet’s skill not merely as a director, but as an administrator, a technician, an engineer and a commander.
Brilliant as it is, there’s a tendency to view Network as a frontal attack with a blunt instrument, a view that obscures the reality of its incredibly sensitive, scalpel-like deconstruction of various issues. Most people recall the film for the angry refrain of one of Howard Beale’s belligerent on-screen rants: “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” The basic story arc is that of Beale–a venerated newsman who’s spent his career informing TV viewers and exercising television’s role as a public trust–becoming depraved, exploited and ultimately destroyed by the amoral capitalistic appetites of the network for which he works, which is too concerned with profits to worry about ethics or morality. But it’s the other stories, the other issues in Network that Lumet handles equally well, if not better. One senses that the burning desire to drop trou and crap as copiously as possible on the institution of television was primarily Chayefsky’s, not Lumet’s. The director seems more concerned with the smaller stories, which shine through so beautifully.
The infamous “I’m as mad as hell!” rant from Network remains one of the most riveting scenes in American cinema of the last half-century. This is what most people remember from the film.
Take, for instance, the film’s portrayal of New York City. Most of what we see of New York in Network is from the windows of UBS’s Madison Avenue office tower. There is where the big deals are going down, the backstabbing “corporate maneuvering” of rival executives knifing each other like Roman Senators, and the big decisions driven by revenue, marketing, advertising and profits. Yet right outside these antiseptic office towers we sense a city of awesome danger, besieged by random crime, recession, drugs, hopelessness and madness–qualities of America at large repeatedly emphasized by Beale in his unhinged rants. Lumet never shows us this side of New York, but it’s there. The picture he paints is of New York as the seething cockpit of amoral, high-blood-pressure insanity, where the only real sin is failure to turn a profit–or, in television’s milieu, a declining audience share. The New York of Network has no romance, no venerable landmarks, no vibrant culture or any chance of human redemption. It’s a maelstrom, a black hole of soul-destroying capitalism. In the end the only character to escape from its pull is Max, but the film leaves us doubting whether even he can pull it off. The others become, in Beale’s words, “humanoids”–creatures who look and act human but aren’t, “as replaceable as piston rods.”
Another haunting picture that Lumet paints is the intersection of love and death. The Beatrice Straight character rants at her husband–there are a lot of shouting rants in Network–that his affair with Diana, many years his junior, is his “last roar of winter passion,” a journey that does not include her, his wife of over 25 years. Max laments to Diana that death is drawing ever closer, that the Grim Reaper has “definable features” she can’t see from the point of view of her youth. She spends her life pursuing the shrieking nothingness of her career; she tells Max she doesn’t even know how to love. For her, a love affair is a series of maudlin set-pieces learned principally from television dramas. “I’m real,” Max tells her. “I live here. You can’t change to another station.” Even when he is at his most tender, she’s babbling on about a deal she made to televise James Bond movies. Ultimately he leaves her, remarking, “There’s nothing left of you I can live with.” His roar of winter passion fails, but we get the sense that he doesn’t regret having tried. At least it was a genuine emotional response, something that television can’t quite understand.
The incredible performance by Beatrice Straight (it appears in this clip after an excerpt from her Oscar acceptance speech) shows the emotional delicacy that Sidney Lumet could direct so perfectly.
Of course, Network is legendary for its prescience. One wonders if Chayefsky was channeling Nostradamus as he built a fictional TV network that Fox News has ultimately imitated in reality. What is Bill O’Reilly but a “mad prophet of the airwaves,” howling incoherently every night about immigrants, rapists and other cartoonish monsters that Fox wants you think are destroying America? The only difference is that Fox has packaged Howard Beale in a political bunting, resulting in the weaponization of the Republican Party in search of higher ratings and higher profits. Network eerily presages the era of reality TV, predicting accurately that viewers would be even more titillated by watching the pain and suffering of real people than scripted scenes by actors playing characters. Gone is any naive sense that television is a “public trust” or that its awesome power brings with it a solemn responsibility. Frank Hackett and Diana Christiansen have no time for such nonsense. They’re in the “boredom-killing business.”
Network is so prescient, in fact, that it’s easy to imagine where the story would naturally have gone had it not ended with Howard Beale’s destruction in a hail of on-screen gunfire. Beale’s sin in the film is that he became unpopular. But what if audiences continued loving him, and the network continued its ravenous profit-driven exploitation of his madness? What might a “mad prophet of the airwaves,” the world’s biggest reality TV star, do for an encore in a hypothetical sequel to Network? Sidney Lumet probably couldn’t have guessed it in 1976, but today in 2016 we know the answer all too well. Howard Beale would run for President of the United States. And the network would be there to watch democracy burn, preferably in a choice prime-time slot, and sell it to advertisers at $100,000 a minute. Let us hope that in real life, we viewers of this grotesque show realize that we still have the power to switch it off.