“I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” So screams deranged anchorman Howard Beale. However, it’s a different kind of rage which infuses Sidney Lumet’s Network (1976) – a crystalline, precise, witty, world-weary and utterly heartfelt rage, making the film one of the best works of satire committed to the screen. Winning a posthumous Oscar for his role, Peter Finch plays a longtime newsman on the United Broadcasting Station News, a channel suffering an apparently endless decline in ratings. Fired in the latest round of cost cutting measures, he uses his penultimate broadcast to declare that he is going to commit suicide live on television.
The network fire Beale immediately but his friend and the President of the News section Max Schumacher (William Holden) campaigns for him to be allowed to make one final broadcast so he can say a dignified farewell. Our protagonist, however, uses the occasion to launch an incendiary rant against contemporary society, concluding by instructing viewers to put their heads out of their windows and famously shout “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.” When the viewers do just that and ratings soar, the station realises it finally has a hit on its hands and ambitious executive Diane Christensen (Faye Dunaway) – whose efforts to transform a radical terrorist group into reality TV stars has stalled – is keen to groom Beale as the next big thing.
Although a simple synopsis might make Network look like an over the top satirical screed, Lumet’s direction places events in an all too credible workaday reality. William Holden reprises the function as he performed in Sunset Boulevard (1950) – the saddened onlooker to a damaged individual being torn up by the fickle demands of stardom. Paddy Chayevksy’s Oscar-winning screenplay took its inspiration from the real life on-air suicide of Christine Chubbuck in 1974. However, his targets are much broader than that and re-watching today proves prescient in ways Chayevsky himself could never have anticipated. The boom of Reality TV as well as the popularity of embedded footage is anticipated by Christensen’s amoral pursuit of ratings with ever more sensationalist and violent footage.
Beale himself has become a model for many TV and radio pundits, shock jocks and snake oil merchants such as Glenn Beck who grasp for the same heightened tone of near mad exasperation as a way of tapping into populist anger. More chilling still is the further idea that such populist anger at the system and society can be easily co-opted and incorporated into the system itself. Ned Beatty’s corporation president Arthur Jensen stages himself as a messianic ‘higher power’, urging Beale to turn his attention away from the insider financial dealings and counsel instead a fatalistic despair. Popular anger is thereby safely channeled into issues which don’t disturb the business as usual model of American capitalism. You can imagine the Koch brothers watching with notebooks and scribbling furiously. Network is an outstanding satire that has become more rather than less relevant with each passing year. It is bitingly funny, whip smart and as mad as hell.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty