Sidney Lumet’s Network is a no-holds-barred, provocative and scathing satire on the degeneration of network television today. It is preachy at times and the manner in which it tries to feed it’s message to the viewer may not be so subtle but somehow it works. Maybe the writer of the film, Paddy Chayefsky, wasn’t going for subtlety. Yes, the film has been described as a satire but what Chayefsky wrote about is the truth. He makes a savage attack on the ratings and profits-obsessed nature of TV channels and this upset a lot of networks when it came out, especially NBC and ABC. An NBC Vice-President at the time called this film “a piece of crap” and ABC’s Barbara Walters worried that the film might be misconstrued as truth. The film was startlingly prophetic.
A TV news anchor Howard Beale (played by Peter Finch) has been recently been fired after 25 years of serving on his show. The fictional TV network that he works is called UBS (which may be short for Unadulterated Bullshit). The reason for him getting the boot is low ratings and a dejected Beale announces on-air that he is going to kill himself during his next week’s televised news broadcast. The executives are shocked and are looking for an instant way to fix this problem. The only person standing by Beale is his longtime friend Max Schumacher (played by William Holden), and when Beale appeals to Schumacher to allow him to make an apology, he convinces the executives to give him a dignified exit. As soon as Beale goes on-air, he starts a small rant and tells the audience that his life so far has been bullshit and that he said what he said before because he “just ran out of bullshit to say”.
This rant naturally leads to a spike in the ratings and the executives decide to keep him on and use him to their advantage. An encouraged Beale finally makes his biggest rant, the now famous “I’m as mad as Hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”. Meanwhile, Schumacher is enraged when he finds out that his news division is soon going to restructured and placed under the entertainment division headed by the Chief of Programming, Diana Christensen (played by Faye Dunaway). (This is a woman who gets an orgasm when she thinks about ratings.) Meanwhile, she strikes a deal with a radical terrorist group called the Ecumenical Liberation Army for a new docudrama series called The Mao Tse-Tung Hour. Howard Beale soon attains celebrity status and his show becomes the top-rated show on TV. Schumacher begins an affair with Diana, thereby cheating on his wife. When Beale finds out that the conglomerate that owns UBS will soon be brought by a Saudi Arabian company, he decides to tell the audience about it.
All the actors involved are in peak form here. I loved Robert Duvall’s performance in particular. The film is directed, as always, with consummate skill by Lumet. It has been 39 years since the film came out and and most people seem to agree with the view that it resonates now more than ever. The film draws a lot from real life and has been able to predict a lot of things about where things are headed when it came out. And seeing the state of television and media today, we can say that the film got so much right. This is an age where talentless hacks, singers, actors, pornstars and moronic politicians become famous simply by doing some random bullshit on camera. This is also an age where people get offended by something so trivial and engage in unnecessary debates about the importance of being politically correct. It’s an eerily prescient film about the dehumanizing effects of present day media.