NOT SINCE THE DAWN OF TIME HAS AMERICA EXPERIENCED A MAN LIKE HOWARD BEALE!
On July 15, 1974 Florida TV news reporter Christine Chubbuck opened her program by covering three national news stories and then turned to a local shooting at a restaurant. After the segment, she told viewers that she intended to bring them a first – an attempted suicide on air. Then she produced a gun and blew her brains out. Fade to black. Even her co-workers doubted at first if what they witnessed was real or staged. Chubbuck had suffered from depression and there were plenty of warning signs, but no one took them seriously enough. Writer Paddy Chayefsky found this shocking suicide particularly inspiring when he wrote Network.
Announcing an on-air suicide
“UBS Evening News” is struggling in the ratings. Long-time anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch) is fed up and announces on his show that next Tuesday he’s going to kill himself on air. At first, his colleagues barely notice what he said, but then hell breaks loose. His superiors want to fire Beale, but thanks to his friend Max Schumacher (William Holden), who’s in charge of the news division, he gets the chance to say goodbye to viewers in a dignified way. The results are anything but as Beale goes off on a major rant. However, it’s a ratings hit and the suits upstairs decide to exploit the craziness in the form of a new “Howard Beale Show” featuring him as an angry “preacher” who tells it like it is.
This turns into a conflict between Schumacher, who’s disgusted with his business, and Diane Christensen (Faye Dunaway), head of programming, who sees new opportunities.
Ever more relevant
Ever since the premiere of Network, people have been saying how the film has continued to become ever more relevant. And it’s true. The TV landscape has changed completely over the decades and the advent of reality programming combined with evolving tastes and seemingly borderless cable television made the kind of entertainment we didn’t think was possible twenty years ago seem ordinary now. The cold and absurd hunt for ratings depicted in this film has also changed – no longer can networks or channels hope for the kind of ratings they had in the ’70s since there are so many of them now. Sensationalism is still a driving factor, often a threat to intellectual ambitions within news divisions.
Chayefsky’s script attacks rampant cynicism in television, especially how younger generations grow up with TV as their only cultural inspiration and how less than stable people are used for entertainment purposes with no questions asked (a precursor to the whole reality industry). The Howard Beale story is satirical, but still frighteningly realistic as well as bitter and funny, with razor-sharp dialogue. Sidney Lumet makes sure that we feel like flies on a wall listening in on increasingly outrageous discussions between TV executives leading up to a finale that we accept as believable in spite of its madness precisely because of how Lumet and Chayefsky handle everything that happens before it. Cinematographer Owen Roizman shot the film to great effect, especially in an eerie scene where Beale is confronted (and persuaded) by Ned Beatty’s arch-capitalistic corporate leader.
Superb cast, especially Finch as Beale and Dunaway as the ruthless programming chief who has a fling with Holden but remains cynical about it – and everything else in her “scripted” life.
The tape of Chubbuck’s suicide was given to the family, so don’t bother finding a clip. It’s typical of human nature that getting curious about it is our first instinct. That’s what might generate dollars and what Chayefsky was driving at. If it happened now, the suicide would automatically go viral, and no one might make any money from it. But sensations will always be created for profits.
Network 1976-U.S. 121 min. Color. Produced by Howard Gottfried. Directed by Sidney Lumet. Screenplay: Paddy Chayefsky. Cinematography: Owen Roizman. Cast: William Holden (Max Schumacher), Faye Dunaway (Diana Christensen), Peter Finch (Howard Beale), Robert Duvall, Ned Beatty, Beatrice Straight… Ken Kercheval.
Trivia: James Stewart, Henry Fonda, George C. Scott and Glenn Ford were reportedly considered for parts. Later a stage play.
Oscars: Best Actor (Finch), Actress (Dunaway), Supporting Actress (Straight), Original Screenplay. Golden Globes: Best Director, Actor (Finch), Actress (Dunaway), Screenplay. BAFTA: Best Actor (Finch).
Quote: “I want you to get up right now, sit up, go to your windows, open them and stick your head out and yell – ‘I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!’ Things have got to change. But first, you’ve gotta get mad!… You’ve got to say, ‘I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!’ Then we’ll figure out what to do about the depression and the inflation and the oil crisis.” (Finch)
Last word: “The cinematography concept of ‘Network’ was wonderful and Owen Roizman carried it brilliantly. Since it was a film about corruption, we would corrupt the camera. There was a realistic look with William Holden and Peter Finch in the beginning, by the end of the movie it looked like a Ford commercial. It was so gorgeous, it looked like ‘A Man and a Woman’, we just gradually made the film look gorgeous. I never liked to see any of this happening. My objection to a lot of work is the stuff that draws attention to itself. I like to sit back and let it hit me. A lot of what I see that I don’t like is the stuff that draws attention to itself. In ‘Network’ we stretched it over 2 hours so you never see it happening.” (Lumet, Cinephilia and Beyond)