by Robert Taylor / IAFT-L.A.
Network (1976) has managed to be one of the only films to pull off the seemingly impossible task of “de-aging” since its release. It certainly must have seemed like outlandish satire in its first release, but today the movie seems like a pointed, subversive send-up of current broadcast channels like Fox News, E! and many others.
How many other films can claim they’re more topical today than when they were released? I’d argue for In Cold Blood (1967), All About Eve (1950) and the original version of The Manchurian Candidate (1962), but very few others.
A well-respected-but-aging UBS national news anchor gets fired. The next day he announces on air that he’ll commit suicide during his final appearance. Ratings skyrocket, and executives decide to keep him on the air, just to see what happens if the 18-to-49-year-old crowd sticks around.
The network executives are all soulless and conniving. The none-too-subtly named Frank Hackett is obsessed with making the fiscally irresponsible news division profitable, and another, the memorable Diana Christensen, provides Hackett with the means to do that, which involve granting the anchor his own spin-off and green-lighting a reality show featuring a terrorist sect.
At some point we realize all the characters are having their own sweet nervous breakdowns, but no one questions them because they have big offices, expensive suits and control the bottom line.
The first hour of the film doesn’t seem to last more than a minute or two because it is so witty, fast-paced and subversively funny.
The anchor’s threat of suicide seems inspired by the mostly-forgotten (except among newspeople, of which I’m one) on-air suicide of local Florida anchor Christine Chubbuck, who shot herself in the head in 1974 during a live broadcast.
Network also features a spoof of the group that kidnapped newspaper heiress Patty Hearst, also in 1974.
These news stories have faded from the public memory, but the inspiration remains the same. We laugh at Network, but the subject matter’s not really that funny, is it?
Writer Paddy Chayefsky wants to get us as angry as we are entertained.
The high point of the film comes when the crazed anchorman bursts onto the news stage during live programming, drenched wet, wearing a raincoat and pajamas, and declaring, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!,” encouraging his audience to scream their anger out loud.
And all across the nation we see windows flung open and people screaming into the streets. It’s the pure, undiluted rage of an entire country, allowed by the powers-that-be only so as to create a wider profit margin.
Chayefsky’s screenplay is pungent and amazing. There are countless moments where Chayefsky gets it precisely right, and others where he purposely goes so over-the-top you’re busting with laughter.
He’s the kind of once-in-a-generation writers, like Aaron Sorkin (who paid homage to Chayefsky’s “Mad as hell” speech in the fantastic pilot of his Studio 60 On the Sunset Strip series), who can successfully make the intricacies of politics not only digestible to a mass audience, but make them hugely enjoyable as well.
Instead of getting an ordinary screenplay credit, he instead gets an “author” credit in the main titles:
by Paddy Chayefsky
And that sounds about right.
This isn’t to say we shouldn’t give director Sidney Lumet the credit he deserves for keeping the ship upright and guiding it successfully through changes in tone. He also gets Faye Dunaway to give the performance of her career as Diana, and his casting for the supporting roles is flawless.
Despite how funny the film is, the truths beneath the humor ring almost frighteningly true today. I’m fairly certain Glenn Beck shouldn’t be worried about getting executed on air during one of his tirades if his ratings go down…
But then again, Beck actually managed to get a hit television show to spew his ramblings.
So who knows?
- Writer: Paddy Chayefsky
- Director: Sidney Lumet
- Actors: Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Peter Finch, Robert Duvall, Ned Beatty, Beatrice Straight, Wesley Addy