A ‘Network’ reality check

Howard Beale (played by Peter Finch) delivers his impassioned rant on air in the 1976 film “Network.”

BY ERIC MINK

Enough already with the re-deification of writer Paddy Chayefsky, and his best-remembered movie, “Network.”

Released at the end of November, 1976, “Network” is a hyper-ventilating vision of commercialism run amok, of a failed television network that wins ratings redemption by exploiting the on-air ravings of Howard Beale, a failed former news anchor suffering from schizophrenia and clinical depression.

The following spring, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — congenitally condescending and resentful toward television – disregarded the movie’s abundant problems and handed it 10 Oscar nominations and four wins, three in acting categories and one for Chayefsky’s screenplay.

Since publication last month of a new book – “Mad as Hell: The Making of ‘Network’ and the Fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in Movies,” by David Itzkoff — book reviewers and others have been bathing Chayefsky and “Network” in effusions of esteem. They have echoed past worshipful assessments of the film and its writer, including claims that the movie predicted with astonishing accuracy today’s media environment — in which cheap entertainment, sensationalism and casually vicious commentary distort and displace the values of journalism.

ADVERTISEMENT


Are they talking about Chayefsky or Sybil the Soothsayer, “Network’s” fictional on-air fortuneteller?

Chayefsky didn’t imagine a miraculously on-point dystopian media future 40 years in advance; he used his prodigious dramatic talents to create a believable fact-based exaggera tion of 1970s media as it already was. Director Sidney Lumet then turned it into a fascinating, if clearly flawed, movie that has since been glorified beyond its due.

The film’s supposedly predictive leaps about TV’s future actually build on a solid foundation of long-established television practices and trends well under way — and already under harsh public scrutiny — when Chayefsky was in research and writing mode in the mid-1970s.

By that time, local television stations — especially in major markets like New York, Philadelphia and San Francisco –already had fallen under the sleazy influence of hired-gun consultants who promised and generally delivered high ratings for stations that abandoned straightforward news delivery in favor of happy-talk banter and tabloid-style stories.

The insidious approach became so pervasive that “60 Minutes” sent correspondent Mike Wallace and producer Harry Moses to San Francisco to do interviews for a stinging on-air segment. Itzkoff’s new book confirms that Chayefsky reviewed the “60 Minutes” transcript during his research.

Meanwhile, the flashy game-show segment of Beale’s carnivalian “Network” show harks back to network quiz shows, their outcomes sometimes rigged in advance, which conquered prime time in the 1950s and early ’60s. By the 1970s, the tasteless excesses of reality/game shows like “The Dating Game” and “The Newlywed Game” had become staples of cringe-inducing TV entertainment.

As for the character of Beale itself, Chayefsky’s so-called mad man of the airwaves didn’t presage the later advent of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly, Nancy Grace and their ilk. The roots of ranting, raving television hosts track at least as far back as Les Crane and Joe Pyne, combative radio personalities who took their respective acts to television in the 1960s and ’70s, although Chayefsky joyously juiced up his drama with Beale’s psychotic delusions.

Even the movie’s outrageous early sequence — in which a disoriented Beale matter-of-factly announces on the air that he will “blow my brains out right on this program a week from today” – drew, tragically enough, from real life. On July 15, 1974, a 29-year-old television personality named Christine Chubbuck, had deliberately shot herself in the head during a morning broadcast in Sarasota, Fla., and died at a local hospital that night. In an early version of the “Network” script, Beale mentions suicide and references “that girl in Florida.”

Properly anchoring “Network” in time negates neither Chayefsky’s gifts nor the movie’s accomplishments. Despite the script’s structural flaws, tonal inconsistencies and occasional incoherence, Chayefsky’s dialogue pulses with a powerful rhythm and explodes with passion and profanity. The performances of such artists as Peter Finch (playing Beale), William Holden, Faye Dunaway and Robert Duvall, guided by director Sidney Lumet, intensify the emotional force of many key scenes.

And there is no denying the enduring resonance of Beale’s deceptively simple catch phrase: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” Chayefsky crafted the line so cunningly that it feels like a cry against the stifled frustrations and hopelessness that can choke anyone struggling with society’s endless cultural, economic, political and technological dislocations.

But, again, some perspective:

Recent viewings of “Network” and 1971’s “The Hospital,” a far better film for which Chayefsky also won a writing Oscar, reminded me that “Network” might be built on something considerably less grand than the abusive power of media and the soul-killing imperatives of contemporary consumerism: the “primal doubts” and “decaying menopausal love,” as the “Network” screenplay puts it, of Max Schumacher (William Holden).

Schumacher is the network’s news division chief, the conflicted character who articulates the movie’s moral and journalistic values. Yet Schumacher — who is 50-ish, the same age as Chayefsky at the time — defies his values and, bowing to those primal menopausal doubts and impulses, becomes sexually involved with a savagely cynical female entertainment executive (Faye Dunaway) some 20 years his junior.

It was, in fact, the second time Chayefsky had wrestled with those personal themes. “The Hospital” revolves around the male menopausal fears of Dr. Herb Bock, a 50-ish physician and medical director of a hospital in chaos. Dr. Bock (played by George C. Scott) is the conflicted character at the film’s moral center, and, as Schumacher would in “Network,” becomes romantically involved with a powerful younger woman (Diana Rigg), albeit one with strong positive values.

These thematic storylines, which receive substantial amounts of screen time, leave you wondering who’s really mad as hell in “Network” and what he’s really mad as hell about.