When it was released in 1976, “Network” largely was considered a satire. Now, not so much.
Writer Paddy Chayefsky and director Sidney Lumet’s searing, Oscar-winning look at the media — being presented Tuesday, Sept. 28, by Turner Classic Movies to lead off a tribute to late co-star Ned Beatty — has proven over time to be a remarkable forecast of developments in the television industry, most notably the lessening of the line between news and entertainment.
The story’s main symbol of that is Howard Beale, the depressed chief anchorman of the fictional UBS network. Brilliantly portrayed by Peter Finch in a performance that was honored with a posthumous Academy Award, he declares that he’s going to commit suicide on the air … prompting his bosses to remove him, until the ratings for his newscast show an immediate and enormous spike.
Close friend and news director Max Schumacher (William Holden, also superb) resists exploiting Beale, but desperate-for-a-hit UBS entertainment chief Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway, another Oscar winner here) inserts herself into the process and takes over the news program, supported by soulless conglomerate deputy Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall, perfect in the part).
What had been a straightforward newscast is turned into a broadcast sideshow of sorts, with Beale positioned as “The Mad Prophet of the Airwaves,” backed by such added attractions as “Sybil the Soothsayer.” Though the show stumbles initially, it eventually finds its groove as Beale beseeches his audience to take action against the wrongs in society … never more so than through his legendary mantra, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”
Beatrice Straight also was a “Network” Academy Award winner for her one big scene as Max’s wife, painfully betrayed when he skeptically enters into an affair with the work-obsessed Diana. The aforementioned Beatty also was an Oscar nominee for the single scene he’s in, but what a scene: a roughly five-minute monologue as the network’s top executive, who tries to impose on Beale an understanding of the reason for the newsman’s new influence (“You’re on television, dummy!”).
Other movies about the TV-news business have come along since, but “Network” remains the standard they’re measured against. That’s unfair in a way, because without Chayfesky’s famously acerbic voice and Lumet’s clever staging, no other movie of this type ever could hope to be another “Network.” It is that original and distinctive, even almost 50 years later.