On June 15, 1974, American news anchor Christine Chubbuck began her daily broadcast, covering three national stories before moving on to a local segment, pre-recorded the day before. When the tape unexpectedly jammed Chubbuck shrugged, turned to the camera and said, “In keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in blood and guts, and in living colour, you are going to see another first – attempted suicide!” She then shot herself in the head with a revolver before the broadcast swiftly cut to black (Harrod, 2016).
Chubbuck died from her injuries 14 hours later. It was revealed she had suffered with depression and had been acting strangely in the weeks and months leading up to her final broadcast (Adams, 2016). Since then it has been alleged numerous times that Chubbuck’s suicide had been part of the inspiration for acclaimed stage and screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky’s Network (Hooton, 2016), a 1976 MGM released feature film that stars Peter Finch in an Academy Award winning role as depressed news anchor Howard Beale, who, in the throws of a mental breakdown, announces plans to take his own life on the air before later backing down and being used by the network as a controversial figurehead to gain ratings.
In his book Mad as Hell: The Making of Network and the Faithful Vision of the Angriest Man in Movies (which details the inception, creation and legacy of the film), American journalist and writer Dave Itzkoff explains that Chayefsky had been working on the script for Network months before the Chubbuck incident, and the similarities between the two were nothing more than an unfortunate coincidence (Itzkoff, 2014, p.47). However, this would not be the last time Network would predict the future of television news, and the film has only become more relevant with each passing year. What began life as a satirical look at American television news divisions has become one of the most unsettlingly accurate takedowns of not just television news, but of media as a whole.
In 2018, “fake news” dominates headlines (Titcomb and Carson, 2018) and the American people have chosen a megalomaniac as their leader; a man who appears dangerously incompetent and petty, but who inhabits the emotional ferocity of the masses who feel left behind (Sargent, 2017). Trump is Chayefsky’s nightmare made flesh and Network stands as a startlingly accurate but sadly ignored warning of the viciousness of American anger and the need for a person to capture that spirit (Patterson, 2016). It is a film that so perfectly predicts the future that it is almost impossible now to view it as the satire it was intended to be. So why has Paddy Chayefsky and Sidney Lumet’s Network remained so relevant almost four decades after its initial release?
“Television is a goddamned amusement park!” – Textual Analysis
A lot about the film can be understood by looking at what is perhaps its most iconic scene (Mikey Gonzales, 2008). The now famous “mad as hell” rant, unleashed by news anchor Howard Beale, has been referenced and imitated countless times in everything from television shows to movies, and the film’s most noted line (“I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”) continues to be used in many different forms of media.
The sequence happens about midway through the movie; Beale is deep into his mental breakdown, having already announced his planned suicide, but his good friend, head of the news division Max Schumacher (played by the wonderful William Holden, who’s defeated yet relatable performance is the glue that holds the film together), has convinced the network to allow him one final send off. When Beale instead launches into a rant, declaring his suicide announcement an act of madness brought on because “I’ve just run out of bullshit”, the network, much to Schumacher’s dismay, decide to keep Beale on air due to a spike in ratings. The network place the news division under the control of Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway, in what is arguably her best performance), a driven, emotionally stunted and selfish sociopath, who envisions “news as entertainment” and plans to put Beale front and centre, under the assumption that his “angry man rants” are an audience draw. Schumacher decides to keep the now even more mentally unstable Beale at his home in the hopes that he will miss the show, but during a thunderstorm the angry, confused and erratic Beale slips out and heads to the studio, wearing nothing but his pyjamas and an overcoat.
When he arrives at the studio Beale is rushed to the stage, soaking wet and still wearing his pyjamas and overcoat. Placed into his news anchor chair by two assistants, Beale sits nervously at his desk. We get a succession of shots setting the scene; a wide showing Beale at his desk, the hot studio lights above him, with a television broadcast camera pointed at his face. We see Diana Christensen waiting in the control room, a flurry of busy people around her, a medium close-up on her face as she waits nervously to see if her plan will work. We see the others in the control room, frantically moving around, busy at work. Over the top of these shots we hear several voices, one coming from the director in the control room, who is eagerly waiting for the current segment to end, and some hushed voices from crew members. We hear the segment itself, although it is inaudible. All of it diegetic, there is no musical score, just the sound of the busy studio gearing up for a show.
We come to a close-up of two television screens in the control room surrounded by dials and switches. One features a black and white image of the studio in a wide, Beale sat at his desk, the other presents the live stream that is going out to households across the country.
The director calls out, “Take two, cue Howard” and the live stream switches to a medium close-up of Beale, a typical news anchor shot. Both the camera within the film and the camera seen through the television screens are static, and the entire shot lasts 8 seconds, just long enough for Beale to look up and begins his speech.
Something is off, not just in the way he looks but how he carries himself. He looks straight down the lens and says, “I don’t have to tell you things are bad, everybody knows things are bad -”.
So begins one of the most iconic scenes in cinema history.
We cut to a wide inside the studio. Howard sits at his desk continuing his speech. The shot is angled high, Beale small and insignificant in the frame. The broadcast camera remains focused on him and two crew members are visible standing to the side, both watching intently. He speaks, but his voice is low and miserable. He turns away from the camera and sadly states that people no longer trust one another.
After fourteen seconds it’s back to Christensen, who watches from the control room, the same shot as before. She frowns, a sense of worry on her face. Beale’s speech can be heard, his voice growing angrier. Christensen appears to be concerned, this isn’t the rousing and energetic speech she expected, this is something else. We see her for only four seconds before cutting back to Beale and that same wide. Beale is becoming more aggressive in tone. He complains that no one seems to know what to do about the problems that face society. As he goes on the camera slowly begins to dolly in, moving toward Beale. He pauses before continuing his rant, this time he addresses the broadcast camera directly, pointing his finger to the viewers at home and berating them for not doing anything despite knowing that “the air is unfit to breath, and our food is unfit to eat”. He scolds them for obediently watching television while a news caster feeds them terrible news “as if that’s the way it’s supposed to be”. The camera continues to dolly forward, closer and closer, lower and lower, until finally it is level with Beale. The movement, coupled with the increasing anger in Beale’s voice, creates a build of tension. The audience can feel Beale’s anger and the closer the camera gets the more they can feel it in themselves. He waves his hands around in the air manically as he speaks and further berates everyone for wishing people would just leave them alone. His voice, his dripping wet hair, his pyjamas and coat all add to the image, he’s a man on the edge.
The shot is no longer a wide, it’s a medium close-up, eye-level with Beale, forcing the audience to see him as a person, as though he were talking directly to them. The entire shot lasts 39 seconds without a cut and at the last moment Beale furiously points his finger straight to the broadcast camera and angrily tells the world, “Well I’m not going to leave you alone, I want you to get mad!”.
Christensen smiles. We can see a sense of joy on her face as she hears Beale’s demand for the viewers to “get mad!”. This was the kind of emotive and engaging television she was hoping for. She can barely contain her pleasure as she watches the scene unfold. But still Beale goes on, and, after only four seconds, it cuts back to him in that same medium close-up.
“I don’t want you to write to your congressman because I wouldn’t know what to tell you to write,” Beale tells the viewers. He tells them he doesn’t know what to do about the issues facing America, and as he does the camera dollies in even closer, halting on a close-up as Beale proclaims that the views have “got to get mad” and demands they remember “I’m a human-being God damn it! My life has value!”. Here we can see all the power of Peter Finch’s Oscar winning performance. For a full 15 seconds the camera lingers, the mania and anger on Finch’s face is both powerful and phenomenal, and director Sidney Lumet has rested us so close we can see every minor detail. Beale looks around the room, furious, as though waiting for someone to say something, but no one does.
Still Christensen watches on, her expression now one of excitement. She bites her bottom lip and waits. The scene goes silent. Beale has stopped speaking and the crew watch on in nervous uncertainty. The shot lasts a second before cutting back to Beale. His fists clenched in the air he waits a beat before standing. The camera tilts up as he does, a seamless transition from eye-level to low angle. Beale now looms over the frame; an angry, manic and almost terrifying monster. This man who was once a kind and honest news reporter has reached peak insanity. He raises his hands in the air, the camera is low, peering up, making the audience feel small in the presence of Howard Beale, who will later be crowned “the mad prophet of the airwaves!”.
“So, I want you to get up now,” Beale instructs the viewers. He tells them to go to the window and scream out of it, and here he delivers what would become the most iconic and remembered line from the movie. He almost screams it himself, such is the fury in his voice. His eyes are wide, and the emotion is practically oozing off the screen.
“Stick your head out the window and yell: I’m as mad as Hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”.
An interesting fact about this particular line; Chayefsky was supremely protective of his script and demanded the cast perform the dialogue exactly as it was written in the script, right down to the last letter. Peter Finch, however, accidentally inserted the first “as” during his performance, which was the second take Lumet shot. Half-way through the take Finch collapsed, tired and unable to continue due to the stress of performing the speech. As a result, the “as” remained in the film, making it the only word spoken on screen that Chayefsky did not write (CinemaTyler, 2017).
Beale waits a beat before moving around his desk, the camera half follows but before it can the film cuts to the director in the control room, the same shot as before. He’s panicked, worried he might miss part of the speech, and he instructs the crew to keep the camera on Beale. Quickly there is a cut to a second crew member, also in the control room, who relays the direction into a microphone, and then it comes back to Beale as the camera tracks along beside him, now in a medium wide, as he approaches the broadcast camera. Keeping with Beale one of the crew members moves the broadcast camera back, tracking in front of him, and we see several other crew members shuffling and ducking out of frame. There is a sense of quiet panic to the news room as everyone tries to ensure Beale is heard.
Suddenly the editing picks up speed. “How many stations does this go out live to?” asks Christensen from her place in the control room. She has suddenly realised something, and the expression on her face tells us as much. A quick cut to the director as he answers without taking his eyes off Beale and then back to Christensen herself, who nods and hurries out of the room. The camera pans to follow but she has left the room before it has the time. She has something important to find out and she hasn’t got time to wait. Beale goes on telling his viewers to scream out the window.
We join Schumacher and his family in their living room, a wide shot of them sat on the furniture while Beale’s rant plays on the TV. Schumacher sits on a chair facing away from the television, leaning around to watch, while his wife sits on the sofa and his daughter on the coffee table, fixated by the screen. The noise of the thunder from the storm can be heard over the mad man’s shouting from the television, still there is no music and all sound is diegetic.
A close-up on Schumacher’s daughter’s face sees her frowning and concerned but still fixated, while a close-up on Schumacher himself sees him close his eyes and turn his head away, devastated by the way the network is abusing his friend. Beale screams on the television and we see what the viewers are seeing for a second before cutting back to the studio and finding Beale still ranting straight into the broadcast camera.
Meanwhile, in the corridors of the network offices, Christensen hurries along and peers into an office filled with businessmen. The camera pans to keep her in frame, the sense of pace increasing. One of the businessmen is on the phone to someone in Atlanta, Christensen grabs the phone from them and demands to know if the viewers are following Beale’s instructions. They are!
Beale continues to scream into the broadcast camera. Christensen rushes out of the office, a huge grin on her face, as the camera dollies back and pans to follow her, the movement swift and precise. The receptionist hands her a phone and tells her “they’re yelling in Baton Rouge!”. Christensen listens down the phone and her grin widens. Beal goes on. In an explosion of delight Christensen throws the phone into the air and the receptionist worriedly catches it. She calls out in glee and chuckles, hurrying away from the desk and the camera, calling out “We struck the motherload!”
From Beale standing to now lasts 52 seconds, only 13 seconds longer that the initial dolly in. Considering the pace at which things were happening before, the sudden increase in cutting, coupled with the fast and sharp movements of the camera, means that the scene is invigorated and filled with life.
Once again, the audience sees what the viewers see as Beale raves on Schumacher’s TV. Schumacher’s daughter continues to watch in close-up, a smile spreads across her face and she jumps up, crossing the room in the wide. Schumacher’s wife asks where she is going, and she excitedly responds, “I want to see if anybody is yelling!”.
Schumacher watches on from his close-up with a sadness in his eyes. He sighs. From outside the camera peers up at the Schumacher window, the daughter opens it and leans out. An angry voice is heard from off shot exclaiming “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”. The rain pours, and the thunder continues to growl, and a second person, a woman, can also be heard shouting the line. Schumacher, from his close-up, hears this and rushes to the window. He leans out beside his daughter as a third voice, another woman, chimes shouts.
Two people stand on a fire-escape, the camera peering up at them. Both shout out the line as lightning flashes, casting deep, dark shadows on the side of their building. From a window further up a man leans out and screams the line. The thunder crashes. The movie cuts to more windows and more people, all of them screaming. Each shot is tilted at a Dutch Angle, giving things a slightly surreal and uncomfortable edge. The camera continues to peer up, static and watching as the thunder clashes, the lightning strikes, the rain pours, and all the people scream into the night. Suddenly the camera is looking down from a few stories up and a man comes rushing out of his front door, screaming into the street. More people appear at windows, shouting the line in anger.
Closer than it was before the camera still peers up at Schumacher and his daughter as they watch, a look of shock and awe of Schumacher’s face. The following three shots are of different buildings and different people, all leaning out of their windows and shouting. The sound of all the different people pile on top of each other until all that can be heard is a mess of noise with the odd word registering. Howard Beale has got through and awoken something in the masses. The thunder crashing and the lightning striking and slowly the camera, from street level, tilts up the building revealing people from all floors screaming into the night. Suddenly the audience can feel the scope of what is happening.
Still Schumacher watches from his window as the noise becomes almost deafening, Chayefsky himself described it as “an indistinguishable tidal roar of human rage as formidable as the natural THUNDER again ROARING, THUNDERING, RUMBLING above.” (Itzkoff, 2011).
Schumacher now stands alone, his daughter has gone, and he watches the people for a moment before solemnly shaking his head and going back inside, closing the window behind him as he does.
By the end of the scene the film has done everything it needs to for the audience to understand where all the characters are coming from, how the film views each of the characters and what Chayefsky and Lumet are trying to say about the power of network television and news divisions. The scene expertly lays out the key themes of the film, the key players in the story and the way in which the film will be moving forward. Howard Beale is lost, gone to the masses, so engrossed in his own hype as the “mad prophet of the airways” that he has turned his back on genuine news to chase his celebrity. Christensen and the network are happy to exploit a man with serious mental instabilities in her quest for successful ratings for the network, even going to far as to hijack the news without a single thought for what it might be doing to Beale’s mental well-being. Meanwhile Schumacher is dismayed by the way he sees things going, and, perhaps most importantly, horrified by the way the viewers seem so quick to follow a man as unstable as Howard Beale simply because he is on the television.
The use thunder and lightning in this scene, coupled with the use of low angles and Dutch tilts, harkens back to the Gothic cinema of the early era of Hollywood, such as Dracula and Frankenstein. It suggests that Lumet and Chayefsky don’t perceive the reaction of the people here as a good thing, but rather a terrible event akin to Dr Frankenstein bringing his monster to life, only here Dr Frankenstein is the network and the monster is television news.
“You can’t switch to another station!” – Theoretical Approach
There’s a definite angry streak that runs through the film, evident here in this scene, and perhaps this has a part to play in the movies continued relevance and accuracy at predicting the future media world. Chayefsky is a man know for his anger, he often wrote angry pieces about everyday people (Campbell, 1981). Indeed, early in his career, critics suggested that he had written his scripts by recording real-life conversations, something Chayefsky took great offence to, stating in an essay published in The New York Times that his writing should be recognised as “more than an ability to put down a recognisable idiom” (Itzkoff, 2014, p.19).
Network is undeniably Chayefsky’s film. While director Sidney Lumet’s usual themes of counterculture and figures questioning authority (‘The directors: Sidney Lumet’, 2015) are clear and present within the film’s script, auteur theory simply cannot apply to Network. Lumet has, in fact, often been see as directly challenging the notion of auteur theory himself. His films often defy classification and, as Professor Andrew Douglas puts it, he was far more interested in artistic expression, his style changing with each new film to match the subject matter and capture the energy and consciousness of the moment (Buirski, 2016). Lumet may have been the man behind the lens, but Chayefsky is the man behind it all. His style oozes from the screen, from long and impassioned speeches complete with his distinctive dialogue and his sharp satirical wit. We can see these themes at play through his work, and there is a great deal of recurring motifs that span the breadth of his decades spanning career (Biography, 2018).
In Chayefsky’s 1953 teleplay Marty, a hardworking but hapless Butcher from the Bronx pines for the company of a woman but refuses to believe that someone such as himself is ever likely to find love. While at first glance this “stark, simple portrait of a gentle, lonely man… who lives with his mother, works as a butcher and longs for a loving relationship as he heads toward middle age” (Schwartz, 1981) might not appear to have anything in common with the sharp and biting satire of Network, there is a clear connective tissue between the two. Not only does Marty feature Chayefsky’s signature monologues and recognisable dialogue, but the teleplay is seeped in his trademark style (ghostrepublic65). Chayefsky’s work is always very human.
Perhaps the clearest and most obvious comparison to Network within Chayefsky’s filmography is 1971’s The Hospital. In The Hospital Chayefsky sets his sights on the medical industry in America and, as he would do to television news in Network, proceeds to tear it down. The similarities between the two films can be seen in film critic Roger Ebert’s review of the movie at the time of its release. He said, “… it begins as a farce… while steering down a long, lonely night with a strange doctor and an even stranger woman” (Ebert, 1972).
There is no doubt that Chayefsky himself is the author of Network, in fact his name appears in the opening titles before anyone else’s; “NETWORK by Paddy Chayefsky” reads the title card. He doesn’t receive a producer’s credit or anything of the like, but he had a firm grasp on every aspect of its production, even to the point that it was he who demanded the hiring of Sidney Lumet as director. When the studio was concerned over Lumet’s ability to handle comedy and broached the topic with Chayefsky over lunch, Chayefsky hurled his soup across the room and sat in silence until the executives relented and agreed to his demands (‘Tune in next Tuesday’, 2015).
Chayefsky made notes on his favourite potential cast members and ranked them in order of whom he would most like to see appear in the film. These stars were then approached by the casting directors assigned to the film, based on Chayefsky’s say-so, while he was on set to ensure that not a single line was misspoken or “fluffed” and if it was he was there to call the actors out and demand that they do it again (Maurer, 2014).
The film is perhaps one Chayefsky’s most personal works. He had a strong disdain for the television industry after his experiences working as a writer for The Philco Television Playhouse (which was where he wrote, among other things, Marty). He believed television to be a place devoid of true artistic merit, a “cesspool” trapped in a constant and never-ending chase for ratings. He condemned the medium as “stupid” and “doomed” even as early as the ‘50s while he still worked within it. His distaste for television would rear its ugly head in his work earlier than Network (Itzkoff, 2011). In 1968 Chayefsky wrote two pilot scripts for potential comedy shows, one titled The Imposters, about a man who pretends to be the long dead writer of The Threepenny Opera, Bertolt Brecht, when he hears that television networks are looking for the writer to adapt his show (Itzkoff, 2014, p.22), and the other, called There’s No Business. Neither of these pilots were successfully picked up, however, and Chayefsky was laughed out of the CBS offices when he tried to pitch them (Itzkoff, 2014, p.24).
Evidently this was something that Chayefsky felt passionate about. Passion was a key part of all of Chayefsky’s work, and he hopped from medium to medium throughout his entire career, desperately searching for a shared sense of passion and artistic integrity everywhere he went (‘Tune in next Tuesday’, 2015). He found himself frustrated by the profit driven mentality of television, but would often cite cinema as a purer artform, claiming that it had the potential, beyond other mediums, to reach people and say things that were important and could stand the test of time (Campbell, 1981). He may have been right. His original concept for Network was, for him at least, frustratingly simple, and he worried that it wouldn’t sustain an entire movie. And yet, that initial “joke” that the entire film would eventually grow from has a resounding and frightening relevance today; “networks will do anything to chase ratings” (‘Tune in next Tuesday’, 2015), even compromise the integrity of the news.
These ideas were fairly radical and “out there” in 1976. In fact, Chayefsky originally intended to take the ideas even further, when he was mapping out his story he considered ending the film with the networks declaring war on Chile (‘Tune in next Tuesday’, 2015), but he found himself concerned about his ability to make it work in a believable and engaging way. He worried that his concept was “Strangelove-y as hell” (Itzkoff, 2014, p.43) and that it wouldn’t translate well to audiences at the time.
“This tube is gospel.” – Audience Approach
His fears were partly confirmed when the film was released, with critics widely regarding Network as good but overstuffed. As film critic Roger Ebert put it; “Chayefsky’s script isn’t a bad one, but he finally loses control of it. There’s just too much he wanted to say.” (Ebert, 1976). Ultimately the film was well received by critics and audiences alike. It was nominated for ten Oscars and won four of them, tying with 1951’s A Streetcar Named Desire for most acting awards (Maurer, 2014).
Much of the praise the film received was given to the performances, with emphasis placed on Peter Finch, who died the day after being nominated for an Oscar (Illson, 1977). Variety called the ensemble cast “uniformly excellent” in their review (Murphy, 1976), while The Hollywood Reporter stated that “no performance is less than brilliant” (Knight, 1976).
But the film was seen as satire. Audiences were ultimately oppositional in their reception of it, taking Chayefsky’s script at face value and failing to take heed of his warning. This was a takedown of the television industry and their ever-growing quest for ratings, but it was fictional none the less. The extremities at which the networks go to achieve those ratings were considered at the time to be far-fetched and unrealistic. Dismissed as simply being paranoid (Kennedy, 2015) and over the top by more than one outlet. In his review for Time magazine, film critical Richard Schickel called the film a “loopy enterprise” and struggled to find the film even remotely believable. He wrote; “the plot Paddy Chayefsky has concocted to prove this point is so crazily preposterous that even in post-Watergate America – where we know that bats can get loose in the corridors of power – it is just impossible to accept”. (Schickel, 1976).
It would be interesting to know what Schickel thinks of the film now that so much of its so-called impossible plot has come to pass. It is only now, when the film is reassessed, that we see how the audience’s reception Network has changed so drastically. This change in reception is perhaps best exemplified when a younger audience member at a 2014 Q&A session after a screening of the film told screenwriter Aaron Sorkin - himself a fan of Chayefsky’s work - that “it felt more like a drama than a comedy” (Travers, 2014).
It’s undeniably true that in the modern world Network looks frighteningly more like an accurate portrayal of the television and news industry than it does the biting satire it was in 1976. Much has been made of how Network so accurately predicted televisions trajectory years before many of these things would come to pass. Dunaway’s Christensen invents reality television through the course of the film, while the iconic rantings of Howard Beale himself are startlingly similar to the kind of angry man persona we have come to expect from right-wing news outlets such as Infowars and, in some cases, Fox News.
Roger Ebert noted the film’s uncanny ability to predict the future in a retrospective he wrote in 2000. In it he wrote; “Seen a quarter-century later, it is like prophecy. When Chayefsky created Howard Beale, could he have imagined Jerry Springer, Howard Stern and the World Wrestling Federation?” (Ebert, 2000), while Empire Magazine noted that the film “now appears prescient to an alarming degree” (Kennedy, 2015).
Even those who dislike the film are unable to ignore the accuracy with which Chayefsky predicted the path of the media. John Patterson, a film writer for The Guardian, calls the film out for embodying the shortcomings of the 1950s golden age of television, complete with “overstatement, speechifying, ranting, self-indulgent writing” and “sledgehammer subtly” but admits that the film is a “blistering satire come true”, even going so far as to say “if Trump hadn’t settled on “Make America Great Again” for a slogan, he could have easily run on “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore!”” (Patterson, 2016).
This change in reception highlights the theory that audiences are active in their consumption of the film. While Chayefsky’s message is clear, the surrounding circumstances in which the film has been viewed, economically, politically and socially, influence the way film has been received by audiences. In 1976 the film was received as a work of satire with some brilliant performances, but a story that seemed outlandish and absurd, whereas in the present day the film has been re-evaluated as an incredibly astute and scarily accurate indictment of television news and of the media as a whole.
It is impossible to know whether Chayefsky truly believed that his ideas would become a reality in the decades that followed the film’s release, but there is no doubt that his intention was to critically satirise television networks increasingly mad quest for ratings. His anger bubbles over in the film, but he was careful to ensure that things, in the beginning at least, appeared as feasible and relatable as possible.
“Because you’re on television, dummy!” – Narrative Approach
Chayefsky went to great lengths to capture the reality of the day-to-day running of network news divisions. He spent time with the heads of the three major networks news divisions, sketching out floor plans, making notes of the lingo used and taking a great deal of inspiration from the types of people he encountered during his observations (Itzkoff, 2014, p.37) and was careful to put all of this research to good use.
Such was his concern that the film would wind up being unbelievable, Chayefsky spent months researching and honing his ideas before he began working on the screenplay proper (‘Tune in next Tuesday’, 2015). He created a schedule for his fictional television network (The New York Times, 2011), which was now called UBS, and drafted a 23-person corporate hierarchy for the company (Itzkoff, 2011).
Realism is the key approach to the film and all of Chayefsky’s painstakingly thorough research and planning comes into play here. The offices of UBS’s news division are designed to accurately reflect the way real news divisions of the time looked. The characters use the correct technical jargon, and one wonders if Chayefsky’s insistence on hiring Sidney Lumet as director was also an attempt to keep the emphasis on realism, with Lumet being recognised as a filmmaker who used realism in his films to keep “audiences in suspense while prodding them to consider their own morality” (American Masters, 2018).
The use of realism draws the audience into the world Chayefsky creates. The performances are all played earnestly, lighting is never stylized, always appearing to come from sources within the scene, and there is a surprising lack of non-diegetic sound. Even the way Lumet shoots the film is very subtle, with the camera mostly static or moving only when the characters do so within the frame. As the narrative unfolds and slowly gives way to the more shocking and outlandish prospects – ultimately climaxing when the network has Howard Beale murdered live on air, the only prediction the movie makes not to come true so far – it continues to hinge on the approach.
Network is a film of two halves, and these are separated by a voice over narration that appears once at the beginning of the film once in the middle, directly after the “mad as hell” scene, and once at the end, providing a sort of epilogue for the film. The narration was provided by character actor Lee Richardson, who frequently appeared in Lumet’s films (IMDB, 2018). The first half focuses on the fall of Howard Beale and details his arc from respected but burned out news anchor to “mad profit of the airwaves”, while the second half focuses more on the sexual relationship between William Holden’s Max Schumacher and Faye Dunaway’s Diana Christensen, pitting the old against the new and exploring the different viewpoints the characters hold. Schumacher represents news as news, a respectable profession with an obligation to the public to present facts, while Christensen represents news as entertainment, and she willing pushes the idea of sensationalising the news in the hunt for ratings.
The fact that the film shifts perspective away from Howard Beale is, in and of itself, a comment on the way television reduces people to personalities. Once Beale has given in to the network and accepted their offer of his own show we no longer get an insight into his personal life. He becomes nothing but the crazy, ranting man on TV. It is only when, toward the end of the film, Beale inadvertently jeopardises a corporate takeover of the network by a Saudi Arabian conglomerate do we return to him outside of his show for a single scene where he is told he must show support for the deal or suffer the consequences.
By this point, however, the film as veered into the absurdist territory it has been heading toward and Chayefsky crafts an ending that, despite refusing to tie-up many of the plot threads and lingering questions, makes a final point on the dangers of chasing ratings over artistic and moral integrity. When Beale refuses to back down to the higher-ups and give in to their demands the network decide to have him killed. In the final joke of the film they discuss the pros and cons of doing this on air, as though it were any other broadcast decision, ultimately coming down on the pros as it will boost ratings and promote their new programme, the Mao Tse Tung Hour, Christensen’s new reality show detailing the escapades of a band of terrorists calling themselves the Ecumenical Liberation Army.
If one were to apply Todorov’s theory of narrative to the film then a clear structure can be pulled from it, despite its shifting perspectives. We begin with a state of equilibrium in the sense that the news division is separate from the entertainment division, but Beale’s on-air suicide announcement serves as the disruption of the norm. The following struggles between Schumacher and Christensen are the recognition of the disruption while Christensen’s successful bid for control of the news division acts as an attempt to repair the damage of said disruption. The films final moments, in which Howard Beale is murdered in front of a live studio audience and thousands of people at home marks the new equilibrium, and as Lee Richardson’s darkly humorous narration informs us at the end, this is only “the first instance of a man who was killed because he had lousy ratings” (Chayefsky, 1976).
“It’s like everything everywhere is going crazy!” - Contextual Approach
Is it any wonder that a film with such a startlingly accuracy in its, at first, seemingly outlandish and bizarre ideas has only become more relevant? Contextually, when Network was released, the world was a very different place to the one we inhabit today. The 24-hour news cycle was not yet the norm for television news divisions, there was no such thing as the internet, and journalism was considered a proud and honest profession, one that worked for the people. The Watergate Scandal was fresh in people’s minds, having been unearthed only four years prior, while Nixon had yet to attempt to defend his actions in the now infamous Frost/Nixon interviews (Drew, 2011).
In 1971, just five years before the release of Network, The Washington Post had successfully taken on the United States Government and published the Pentagon Papers, a secret history of the White House’s dishonesty with regards to the Vietnam War. The resulting legal action taken by then President Nixon’s administration came down in favour of freedom of the press (Dunlap, 2016), and all of this lead to an element of trust in the press and news media.
Flash forward to today, however, and the media is frequently under attack. Filmmaker Steven Spielberg recognised this when he released his 2017 film The Post, which directly details the aforementioned court case regarding the Pentagon Papers (Freedland, 2018). People no longer have the same trust they once did in the news, and the internet had lead to an increasing need for television news to attempt to draw in ratings. Satirical approaches to news shows can be seen everywhere, from Chris Morris’ 1997 satire of investigative journalism programmes Brass Eye, through to more modern examples such as John Oliver’s weekly talk-show, Last Week Tonight.
The modern world is a much more cynical one, and much angrier one. The rise in right-wing politics coupled with the clear and proven bias of the media has lead to people frequently turning away from more traditional news outlets (Ball, 2018). Meanwhile the internet has enabled angry rants from the likes of radio personalities such as Alex Jones to go viral (Sommerlad, 2018) thus further leading to the sensationalism of the news.
The relevance of Network in all of this could be seen as a coincidence, but more likely it is simply an inevitable by-product. With Chayefsky’s experience in television, he was able to foresee the outcome of the medium’s flawed format. As more networks and more competitors appears it was only a matter of time before the search for ratings outweighed the importance of honest journalism. Chayefsky didn’t so much run wild with the concept as he did simply take it to its logical extremity.
“And here are a few scenes from next week’s show.” - Conclusion
It is possible that we may see Network’s most out-there concept come to fruition one day soon, and when the day finally comes that someone is killed live on air for ratings the question will no longer be how far will the networks go for ratings but where will they go next? Maybe some of the ideas Chayefsky omitted from his screenplay in the end – the corporations take over America, the networks declare war on Chile (‘Tune in next Tuesday’, 2015) – aren’t quite as unfathomable as audiences initially thought.
Its influences may be far reaching, from scripted shows and movies like the works of Aaron Sorkin through to satirical media and even to the modern-day news, but Network’s most important legacy doesn’t lie in its satire but in its aggression. It’s an angry film for an angry time, and while it may have served as stark warning upon release, now it captures the mood of a society who has been bombarded with the news as entertainment for years.
Network does advise us on how to put an end to this madness though, although the message is hidden amongst the maniacal rantings of Howard Beale, “mad profit of the airwaves”. It may not have been Chayefsky’s intention to offer us a solution, but if we take those iconic words at face value and, rather than simply poke our head out of the window and scream actively do something about it, maybe we can see a change in the way the news is consumed and presented to us.
All together now, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take it anymore!”
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