“I don’t believe a word I hear on television as a value, as an esthetic, as a truth. If you pay attention to television, then this is a country of hookers, hit men and pimps because that’s the only drama we see on television.”
– Paddy Chayefsky
There is a moment in Nunnally Johnson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956) where harried father, Tom Rath (Gregory Peck) returns home from a stressful day, desiring nothing more than the welcomed embrace of his children, only to discover them sprawled out on the living room rug in an intellectual and emotional paralysis in front of the television, quite oblivious to his presence. Fast forward to another moment from Colin Higgins’ The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982) where muckraking watchdog reporter, Melvin P. Thorpe (Dom DeLuise) explains to Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd (Burt Reynolds), “The power of television scares me. I can get the mayor’s own children to throw rocks at him.” What these two scenes have in common is an articulation of the anesthetizing influence television has had on shaping – or perhaps ‘manipulating’ – generations of young minds, telescoping the diversity and freedom of individual thought into a collectivism of skewed opinion, regurgitated as ‘the truth’. “How do you preserve yourself in a world in which life doesn’t really mean much anymore?” screenwriter extraordinaire, Paddy Chayefsky inquired.
Television’s ability to dehumanize any event and situate its importance within an imposed hierarchy, to be ingrained as reality in our collective consciousness, is at the crux of Chayefsky’s Network (1976), still the most scalding and brutal reflection of what the television age has done to pervert the ideas and opinions of contemporary culture. With a poster tagline, ‘television will never be the same’ and a catch phrase, “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore,” Network was a prophetic piece of ‘fiction’ meant to stir audiences from their relative complacency. Alas, what played as undiluted satire in 1976 in retrospect, now seems to ring with an ominous toll of truth; the denigration of ‘objective news’ into its present day three-ring circus and media frenzy for any sound bite – even one fraught with skewed perspectives or worse, incorrect information – becoming about as ‘objective’ as an attempt to host an NAACP fundraiser at a Ku Klux Klan rally.
Here is that Alice in Wonderland-esque ‘rabbit-hole’ as clairvoyantly envisioned by Chayefsky in 1976; the view from the cheap seats even more perilously myopic than the famed screenwriter had feared. Chayefsky’s brilliant prose resonate today not so much for their ascorbic wit – though there is plenty of this in Network – but as prolific projection into a future forecast sadly come to pass. While Network continues to have its share of critical backlash and polite dismissals, primarily from ensconced figures in the news media – who claim with a half-grin, Chayefsky’s premise remains quaintly warped to mildly fraudulent – there is no denying television’s sway over the collective mindset. In Network, UBS news anchor, Howard Beale (Peter Finch), rechristened the mad, angry prophet of the airwaves, and utterly desperate to impart some sobering wisdom on the viewing audience, astutely articulates, “You people are the truth. We are the illusion….we’ll tell you any shit you want to hear!”
Too little/too late. For the lines between reality and TV’s version of it are already deliberately and irreversibly blurred, reconceived and re-imagined to boost Nielson ratings. Television has been our god-like and insular mandarin espousing its version of history and world events for the modern age. Yet, in retrospect, it now seems to be dictating and micro-managing our critical responses and opinions. Whether one chooses the inauguration of de Forest’s vacuum tube in 1906, Campbell Swinton and Boris Rosing’s debut of the cathode ray the following year, or 1939’s first experimental broadcast at New York’s World’s Fair, the introduction of TV as a main staple in suburban life has done exactly the opposite of what it was originally intended to do; namely, to provide a window into the realities of our world. Instead, it has deliberately contributed to the pacification of popular opinion – nee brainwashing.
It is a telling bit of historical retrospect that the first experimental televised broadcast was Franklin Roosevelt’s Presidential speech; a prelude to the pop culture mass marketing of every president and hopeful candidate since, forced to profess sincerity over this rather insincere invention. The standards in professional journalism were always flimsily kept in checks and balances by television’s own self-governing standards. By the late 1950s, television proclaimed its dominance in the United States. Director Sidney Lumet came to Network very well versed, having begun his career in TV on a half hour adventure/drama series – Danger. At the end of the show’s run he joined the Ed Sullivan Company and contributed to such diverse prime time programming as You Are There, The Best of Broadway, Playhouse 90 and Kraft Television Theater. Lumet’s penchant for realism bode well with Chayefsky’s glib reportage. Hence, in casting Network Lumet chose actors who could play comedy without actually having to be funny – capturing the irony in the exercise to funnel the laughs through more than a kernel of truth.
As one might imagine, Network was not an easy film to get made. Chayefsky and producer, Arthur Gottfried’s initial discussions with Arthur Krim and United Artists (UA) had reached a stalemate after a nervous Krim suggested everyone have a sit down with the VP in Charge of Business Affairs. Refusing to even entertain the notion, Chayefsky instead asked UA to release the project, which they did, whereupon he and Gottfried immediately pitched a deal over at MGM. Because UA and MGM were already in partnership, Krim eventually asked to be brought back onto the project, providing half the financing and ultimately agreeing to worldwide distribution. In the meantime, Sidney Lumet began rehearsing his cast. Told by Lumet her character, Diana Christensen had no soul, Faye Dunaway was quietly encouraged by close friends not to do the part. Instead, Dunaway approached the character as a cold-blooded viper, the antithesis of her careworn, emotionally distraught and angst-ridden lover, middle-aged craggy television exec,’ Max Schumacher (William Holden); a fascinating contrast in their May/December sexual infatuation.
In retrospect, Network has a killer cast; Robert Duvall, as the maniacal CCA hatchet man, Frank Hackett and Ned Beatty, a last minute substitute, stepping into the part of CCA President, Arthur Jensen with only a day’s worth of rehearsal: a performance that earned Beatty a Best Supporting Actor nomination. And then there is Beatrice Straight as Max’s distraught and castoff wife, Louise, unceremoniously informed by Max he intends to run off with Diana as part of his midlife crisis. Lumet had Straight run through her scene six consecutive times, wearing down the caustic strength in her performance until what quietly emerged was a genuine sense of exhaustion and crushing self-pity. “She worked for a week,” Lumet later recalled, “And walked away with the (Best Supporting Actress) Oscar for basically one scene.”
Ah, but what a scene; Straight devolving from embittered rage to self-sacrificing sorrow as she hollers, “Get out! Go to a hotel. Go and live with her. Go anywhere but don’t come back! Because after twenty-five years of building a home and raising a family and all the senseless pain we’ve inflicted on each other I’m damned if I’m going to stand here and have you tell me your in love with somebody else. Because this isn’t a convention weekend with your secretary is it? Or some broad that you picked up after three belts of booze. This is your great winter romance, isn’t it? Your last roar of passion before you’ve settle into your emeritus years. Is that what’s left for me? Is that my share? She gets the winter passion and I get the dotage? What am I supposed to do? Am I supposed to sit home knitting and pearling while you slink out like some penitent drunk? I am your wife, damn it. And if you can’t work up a winter passion for me the least I require is respect and allegiance. I’m hurt, don’t you understand that? I hurt badly. Oh say something for God sake.”
Network is chocked full of such riveting emotional sequences; the greatest of them all, arguably, Howard Beale’s initial spiral into madness. Rain-soaked, with eyes bulging and a perpetual scowl written across his craggy visage, Beale engages his audience on a visceral level as he staggers and stares directly into the television camera, proclaiming, “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. Shop keepers keep a gun under the counter. Punks are running wild in the street and there’s nobody anywhere who seem to know what to do about it. There’s no end to it. We know the air is unfit to breathe and our food is unfit to eat. We sit watching our TV’s while some local newscaster tells that today we had fifteen homicides and 63 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’re living in is getting smaller and all we say is please, 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 going to leave you alone. I want you to get mad. I don’t want you to protest, I don’t want you to ride or 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, go to the window, open it, stick your head out and yell, “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore.”
The problem, it seems, for most of our current generation – weaned on news-based pop-u-tainment – is the lines between fact and fiction are not merely blurred or become invisible, but arguably, have been entirely removed. With a modus operandi just as easily derived from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962); “when the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” television had assumed an immodest mantel of purporting to be the omnipotent ‘information technology’ when, in reality, its entire existence is built upon pandering to the lowest common denominator – ratings! Today, the internet has taken over where TV left off – saturating us with 24hr. instant access made accessible at the click of a mouse. Yet, its’ proliferation of ‘news’ has become even more of a cancer than television. Fact-finding has taken a backseat to instant gratification - being the first to scoop a story more important than the story itself; the more salacious the tidbit, the better.
If ever a film could be considered as oracle to this present-day dilemma, Paddy Chayefsky’s Network is that vessel. The author of this watershed movie was remarkably clairvoyant in his controversial predictions. For example – in 1976 the three major television networks were all self-owned and operated. But by 2006, conglomerates like General Electric, Time-Warner and Viacom had taken over general operations. Chayefsky understood these implications far better than most. Until then, there had always been an understanding news programming lost money – the public less likely to tune into Walter Cronkite than Mr. Ed – hence, advertising revenue sold at a lower premium cost per minute. But with corporate sponsorship ‘the news’ inevitably (d)evolved from a money-losing enterprise to a necessary profit-driven center. Network’s spoofs of the Mao Tse-Tung Hour, Sybil the Soothsayer and Miss Mata Hari and her Closet Full of Skeletons – shows catering to the immoral, profane and sensational - have since become television’s ‘fact-based’ ‘news-orientated’ programming; Dateline, America’s Most Wanted, The Psychic Friends Network and Extra!, with their own slant on celebrating the perverse.
This insidiousness is even more glaringly obvious when one considers the trickle-down effect in such ‘reality’ shows as Cheaters and The Real Desperate Housewives franchises, and, how programming of fictional television drama has slowly begun to shift from shows about crime-solving (Law & Order, Hawaii Five-0) to those championing the criminal element; Dexter and Hannibal, encouraging audiences to align their empathy with an appreciation for and acceptance of pure evil. The only prophecy from Network as yet unfulfilled on television today is the first televised broadcast of a public execution. “Let’s face it,” Paddy Chayefsky acknowledged in an interview on The Dinah Shore Show, “public execution has been the best show in town for many, many year” but “human life is a hell of a lot more important than your lousy dollar!”
“That’s the only part of Network that hasn’t happened yet, and that’s on its way,” concurred director Sidney Lumet, “I think everybody’s got much more information (today), and is much less intelligent. Chayefsky went one further back in 1976, reiterating the purpose of entertainment, “Our obligation in our industry is to entertain people. We fill up their leisure. That’s what we do. If we manage to give them one shred of insight into their otherwise meaningless lives then we’ve achieved what is called artistry…and that’s bonus.”
Acknowledging television’s power “that transcends anything in the world today” Chayefsky’s overriding concern was how TV’s ninety-five percent country-wide saturation was impacting the overall cultural perspective of world events. If, as Chayefsky reasoned, violence in motion pictures had reached a level of extreme gruesomeness, then it was merely a proportionate response to the increased bombardment of violent images seen on television. These had, in Chayefsky’s opinion, a much uglier effect, “not because it breeds violence” he explained, “but because it brutalizes the audience” into acceptable complacency. “You no longer feel the pain of the people, the grief of the mourners.”
Network provides a far-sighted glimpse into this morphing from serious journalism into sensationalist propaganda. The film stars Peter Finch as Howard Beale, a man of integrity, honesty and, above all else, corporate professionalism. That is, until he is told he is being sacked by the new management. Faced with the end of his career, Howard announces on air that he is going to commit suicide during his last broadcast; an act of lunacy, garnering press coverage on virtually all of the network’s affiliates, bleeding through, into the tabloid front pages of ever newspaper the following day. Although the network, headed by corporate whore, Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall) immediately fires Beale, the old curmudgeon is quickly reinstated when the Nielsen ratings skyrocket.
Chayefsky’s other focus in Network is on the acquisition of independent news agencies by multinational corporations, merely interested in acquiring property instead of improving the overall quality; once again, the ratings dictating fiscal solvency. Corporate entities are perhaps deliberately naïve about the truth, so long as it sells and is made to be profitable. “What you see on television is what’s getting money for the network,” Chayefsky explained, “It’s not true,” but rather “…conforming and manipulating popular thought.” What Paddy Chayefsky ultimately understood was that corporate sponsorship cannot operate at a loss. To make the news popular its contents had to change to slickly packaged sensationalism. Multiple anchors, flashy backdrops, ‘human interest’ stories (and most recently, soap opera previews and cooking and health tips) have become acceptable parts of the daily/nightly news broadcasts in an attempt to make the news more exciting but – as Chayefsky reasoned in 1976 – hardly more news-worthy.
What Network does exceptionally well is to conceptualize this exploitation of the news into foolish self-parody through the slow mental decline of one of its mandarins, Howard Beale. In essence, Beale is what’s right with the news and therefore, as foreseen by Chayefsky, he must be destroyed – preferably, on air to boost ratings. Beale’s value as a scapegoat outweighs any strict adherence to professional standards in journalism. Transforming Beale into a colossal joke of his former self as the “mad angry prophet, denouncing the hypocrisies of our time” is only the beginning. In Max Schumacher’s case, the joke is on him, ravaged and devoured by sycophantic sexual neurotic Diana Christiansen (Faye Dunaway); who run buckshot over his professional reputation and ruins his marriage; eventually robbing him of his humanity in a perversely wicked parallel to Beale’s ultimate fate. Having outlived his usefulness to the network, the executive brain trust decide to hire a little known underground terrorist peddling mutilated Marxism, the Great Ahmed Khan (Arthur Burghardt) to assassinate Beale during a live broadcast, thereby ensuring the highest rating yet for any ‘news’ program.
What Paddy Chayefsky has managed to capture in Network is a reflection of the extremes to which such a destructive force could be allowed to proliferate and prosper. Such blind ambition to be ‘number one’ obliterates all sense of logic or standards: the old ‘absolute power corrupts’ philosophy exposed for what it really is. “You start off to make a great movie,” Chayefsky once explained, “…settle for a good movie after the first day of shooting…and then (are) just glad to finish it.” In the final analysis, Network is a great movie because it marks the beginning of a period in television broadcasting since ominously charting the trajectory of Chayefsky’s satire all too accurately. Chayefsky’s notion television ought never to be taken at face value as either “a truth, aesthetic or value” was startling in 1976. In fact, it had many grand old men of the newsroom up in arms, enough to summarily dismiss Network as mere outrageous black comedy. Yet, in retrospect, Network is a crystal ball into the staggering quagmire of pre-digested sound bites currently infesting our media-driven need to know, even as it does not serve the general public good. Today, we are indeed as ‘mad as hell’. The question remains…are we going to take it anymore?
Arrow Academy has reissued Network in a Region B locked Blu-ray. And while its bit rate easily outranks the old Warner Home Video Blu-ray release, visually it seems subpar to the Warner disc in all respects. On the Warner disc, colors are generally richer and more refined, flesh tones occasionally looking a tad too orange. Otherwise, color fidelity is appropriately dated to a patina befitting the 1970s. Comparatively speaking, there’s little to recommend the Arrow Blu-ray over the Warner release, especially if you don’t own a region free Blu-ray player and would like to acquire the Arrow disc in North America. On both discs, age-related artefacts have been eradicated. The image is smooth with a distinct patina of naturally reproduced film grain. Fine detail take a quantum leap forward on the Warner Blu-ray, but the Arrow seems to have homogenized contrast levels to the point where some details fail to pop as they should. I’m going to side with the Warner release on this one. It isn’t perfect, but it looks better in motion than the Arrow release does.
The DTS mono audio on both remains a disappointment, unbelievably strident. Network is a movie where all the characters shout - a lot! During normal conversation the audio is dated but acceptable. However, at higher decibels, raised voices become quite grating on the ears and occasionally break apart with a crackle. I don't know if anything could have been done to refine this audio recording, but I definitely think some alternatives ought to have been explored. Extras differ between the two releases. Warner’s Blu-ray contains an exceptional documentary on the making of the movie with Lumet and Gottlieb weighing in. We also get fascinating excerpts of Paddy Chayefsky being interviewed on The Dinah Shore Show. The Arrow release substitutes, The Directors: Sidney Lumet; a 1999 documentary containing interviews with Jack Lemmon, Rod Steiger and Christopher Walken, among others; also Tune in Next Tuesday a visual essay by Dave Itzkoff, plus a collector’s booklet featuring a new and vintage piece on the film; the first by Mike Sutton, the other from director of photography, Owen Roizman. I can’t say which set of extras fascinated me more. Each has their merit. I can only reinforce, the visual presentation of the film via Warner’s North American release impressed me more.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)