For week three of my spotlight on journalism films,I’d like to focus on Sidney Lumet’s savage broadcast journalism satire Network. Released way back in 1976,it was a film light years ahead of its time. The story,characters,and writing hold up 40 years later.
Network‘s protagonist is Howard Beale (Peter Finch),the news anchor of UBS. Ratings are down and the network feels he’s lost his touch. Beale is fired by the head of the news division and his longtime friend Max Schumacher (William Holden). After being fired,Beale goes on the air and says he’s going to blow his brains out on the air in one week. The network is rightly furious and pulls him off the air. Beale insists he was drunk at the time and asks to go on the air one more time to go out with dignity. This is when Finch launches into the famous “mad as hell speech.” The monologue strikes a chord with audiences. Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway),the new and ambitious vice-president in charge of programming,sees Beale as a way to solve UBS’ ratings woes. Christensen convinces the network brass to create a show around Beale and also embrace counterculture programming. Max is appalled. He doesn’t want to see his friend exploited and is a newsman of the old school. It’s the contrast in views of how the network should be run that give Network its juice and sets up the third act.
I mentioned earlier that Network was a film ahead of its time. Look at today’s 24/7 cable channels. It’s not about investigative journalism and being public watchdogs anymore. It’s about ratings and money. This film also predicted the coming of reality TV and corporate takeover of media.
Network is populated with great actors. In addition to Finch,Holden,and Dunaway,there’s Robert Duvall and the always-wonderful character actor Ned Beatty. Beatty has a speech just as memorable as Finch’s.
The film is filled with complex,insightful monologues. Every actor hits theirs out of the park. The real star of the film isn’t even seen. It’s Paddy Chayefsky. He wrote the brilliant screenplay. Network is brilliant not only because of its all-star cast,but because it attacks its subject with ferocious,reckless abandon.
Sidney Lumet was one of our greatest directors. His resume included 12 Angry Men,Dog Day Afternoon,and The Verdict. All are classics in their own right. Lumet honed his craft on television for a long time before getting his break in film. Believe it or not,his feature film directorial debut was 12 Angry Men. What a way to start a film career! That film,and many of his others,are now rightly considered classics.
Network was brilliantly made on every level possible. It predicted what modern media has sadly become: a sensationalistic wasteland. It’s not about getting stories right and reporting what the public needs to know. It’s all about ratings and controversy. Maybe Paddy Chayefsky was clairvoyant.