I don’t have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. It’s a depression. Everybody’s out of work or scared of losing their job. The dollar buys a nickel’s worth, banks are going bust, shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter. Punks are running wild in the street and there’s nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do, and there’s no end to it. We know the air is unfit to breathe and our food is unfit to eat, and we sit watching our TV’s while some local newscaster tells us that today we had fifteen homicides and sixty-three violent crimes, as if that’s the way it’s supposed to be. We know things are bad – worse than bad. They’re crazy. It’s like everything everywhere is going crazy, so we don’t go out anymore. We sit in the house, and slowly the world we are living in is getting smaller, and all we say is, ‘Please, at least leave us alone in our living rooms. Let me have my toaster and my TV and my steel-belted radials and I won’t say anything. Just leave us alone.’ Well, I’m not gonna leave you alone. I want you to get mad! I don’t want you to protest. I don’t want you to riot – I don’t want you to write to your congressman because I wouldn’t know what to tell you to write. I don’t know what to do about the depression and the inflation and the Russians and the crime in the street. All I know is that first you’ve got to get mad. You’ve got to say, ‘I’m a HUMAN BEING, God damn it! My life has VALUE!’ So I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window. Open it, and stick your head out, and yell, ‘I’M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I’M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!’
“What happened was, there was a big story about a major worldwide corporation was going to take over the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) – they had started negotiations to buy the whole broadcasting company. And what immediately came to Paddy’s mind was, that, like any other corporation, they would look for where they would make the most profits.
Prior to this happening, the news, and the news area had always been considered an area where the Networks understood they would lose money. And what Paddy realized was that once one of these multi-national corporations took over a major network, they would immediately try and make the news area into a profit center, and in the process of doing that, they would obviously be willing to bastardize the news and make to it into a total entertainment situation.”
- Howard Gottfried, Producer, on screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky’s inspiration
Fired from his newscaster job after fifteen years of service, news anchorman Howard Beale (Peter Finch) goes on the air, and during a moment of desperation, announces he intends to kill himself, on the air, in one week.
Having lost his wife, and now his job, he has nothing left to live for.
Of course, this doesn’t sit well with the network brass. They had been expecting he’d carry out his duties professionally over his final few weeks behind the desk. The network has recently been acquired by a large corporation, and this does not reflect well on them. So Howard Beale is pulled off the air… he won’t be on the air in a week to carry out his threat. But Beale leans on the goodwill of his producer, Max Schumacher (William Holden), to let him back on the air for one more night in order to explain himself, and apologize, so that his career won’t end on such an ignominious note. Schumacher acquiesces, and Beale gets back in front of the camera and explains why he threatened to kill himself.
He ran out of bullshit.
Of course, this doesn’t go over well either. And now Schumaker’s job is on the line, as well.
But standing in the shadows is an ambitious young programming executive named Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway). It’s Christensen who recognizes the potential to exploit the situation for ratings. Beale’s suicide threat, followed up the next night by his exhausted “bullshit”-free honesty, have monopolized the attention of the major news organizations across the country. Beale is big news. The ratings for his second night are huge. So Christensen presses the daring idea… Keep Beale on the air. She convinces Senior Vice President Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall) to hastily convene some of the top brass and take a gamble on keeping Howard Beale on the air.
What none of them realize is that Howard Beale is losing his mind.
It’s not long before he begins to hear the word of God.
And so, Howard Beale walks the streets all night, in the rain, returning to the studio announcing, “I must make my witness”. He proceeds to deliver the infamous monologue quoted above, culminating in the legendary “I’m as mad as Hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”
It’s one of the most famous monologues in film history. Not simply because of the impassioned performance of Peter Finch. But because it resonated with audiences. It still does. Just like the fictional audiences of UBS News responded by throwing their windows open and yelling in anger, the message resonated with movie goers, as well. The overwhelming frustration. The sheer resentment at the state of the world. Directionless, ineffectual, but deep-seated, primal, long simmering anger. The audiences respond to Howard Beale rabidly.
The network, in turn, promote Beale and build an entire circus around him, complete with a fortune-teller and gossip segment. They call him the “Mad prophet of the airwaves”. He continues to rant and rave and gesticulate wildly preach against the evils of society as he sees fit, including television itself, until he collapses on stage.
While Beale raves, and UBS sells out its journalistic integrity, it also sells out its ethics by getting in bed with the criminally oriented, violent Ecumenical Liberation Army in order to produce the “Mao Tse Tung Hour”.
But the network isn’t the only whore in town. In one of the least subtle symbolic relationships ever, the stately Max Schumacher, shown to have otherwise lofty ideals and standards of ethics, falls into bed with Diana Christensen, who is shown to be utterly focused on one thing and one thing only – ratings. Max has fallen in love with the new and the young, while Diana seduces and corrupts because that’s what she does.
Max even goes so far as to leave his wife.
Their relationship is symbolic of television’s corrupting effect on America. Max even goes so far as to say “You are television incarnate, Diana” (subtlety is nowhere amongst “Network”‘s list of virtues). “Indifferent to suffering, insensitive to joy. All of life is reduced to the common rubble of banality.” Max represents the old guard, the American virtue and value systems… which Chayefsky saw as being lost in the showdown with the relentless, predatory influence of television.
Beale, the “Mad Prophet”, rails against it too. After ranting on air and threatening a possible takeover of UBS’ Parent Company, CCA, Beale is called into the office of Chairman of the Board Arthur Jensen (Ned Beatty), who delivers one of the most chilling speeches in history, laying out a cynical world view in which the only thing that’s important in the world are corporations and the flow of monies. He then demands Beale turn his attention from the business deal in question. And so, the susceptible, unstable Beale softens his on air anger, turns it away from corporations and begins to focus on the effects of television on people.
Citing the undue influence television programming has begun to have on people’s lives (keep in mind, in the late 70s, the phenomena of common household tvs was still less than 40 years old, tops), while in truth, everything that’s shown on television is a lie. Television is in the entertainment business “We’ll tell you any shit you want to hear!” But he also bemoans people’s willingness to sacrifice their own individuality for what they see on “the tube”.
TV, controlled by big business, wants nothing more than to make money, is willing to lie, cheat and steal to do it, and yet Americans were sacrificing their time, their ideals, and their sense of self to its anesthetising, homogenizing, hypnotic illusions.
Of course, ironically, people reject the truth. They dont stop watching the tube, they just stop watching HIM. His numbers begin to fall precipitously, endangering the overall UBS turnaround. And so, in what is perhaps “Network”‘s least subtle moment, the UBS programming executives decide to have Howard Beale killed by their friends over at the Ecumenical Liberation Army. And they do, they shoot him dead, on the air, during a broadcast.
It’s heavy handed, but the lack of nuance can be forgiven. “Network” is one of the most searing indictments of our world ever put to film.
Major news reporting is in a far scarier state of moral affairs now than when Max Schumacher railed against the intrusion of entertainment. The news has always been sensationalized, and fear-oriented, and still is today. But today, major news is also being delivered in highly politicized fashion. “Objectivity” has been almost completely abandoned by notable, far-reaching broadcast organizations in favor of partisan bents. The World’s second largest media corporation, “News Corporation,” was revealed to have engaged in the practice of phone hacking. Cable television and the internet have given rise to the 24 hour news cycle, and with the advent of twitter, an emphasis on immediacy above accuracy. Of course, the reality TV portrayed by UBS Programming was actually lofty and idealized compared to what’s actually come to transpire.
But Network’s most chilling prophecy was the global dominance of the multi-national corporation. And we have never seemed closer to the Beatty’s frightening conception of “One vast and ecumenical holding company, for whom all men will work to serve a common profit, in which all men will hold a share of stock. All necessities provided, all anxieties tranquilized, all boredom amused.” Scant television content is provided independent of MAJOR corporate interests. Most smaller “cable networks” are actually owned by the old school “broadcast networks”, which are in turn owned by leviathan conglomerates. At some point in every chain these behemoth, soulless legal entities control every avenue of human communication to some extent or another.
The clichéd thing to say would be that Network was a movie ahead of its time. But its wasn’t. It was very much of its time. It just saw through the all the obfuscations and gauzy haze of contentment that society was being sold far clearer than most, and had the fortitude to tell the truth. Now we’re all more aware of the state of affairs because its become impossible to hide the influence of corporate interests in world events.
At a certain point in time, “Influence” is no longer a strong enough word.
The movie was nominated for ten Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and an incredible FIVE performance awards. Best Actor nominations for William Holden and Peter Finch, Best Actress for Faye Dunaway, Best Supporting Actress for Beatrice Straight, and Best Supporting Actor for Ned Beatty. Finch, Dunaway and Straight would take home Oscars. Unfortunately, Peter Finch would pass away prior to receiving his. At the time, it was the only posthumous Academy Award ever given. Straight’s win was notable as well, it’s the shortest performance ever to win an Oscar. She was onscreen for only 5 minutes, 40 seconds. One scene.
The movie did not win Best Picture (Rocky), but Paddy Chayefsky did win for Best Screenplay.
“I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” has become one of the most famous movie lines of all time. It’s listed as #19 on AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Movie Quotes. The movie itself is #66 on AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Movies and stayed steady ten years later, at #64 on the Tenth Anniversary Edition. The screenplay was voted one of the top-ten screenplays of all time by the Writers Guild of America, East. The movie was inducted into the Producers Guild of America Hall of Fame. It has been preserved in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.
It’s definitely a “Movie That Everyone Should See”.