It has been 38 years since Howard Beale shouted “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!” at a television camera. The mood comes and goes, but America is still mad as hell, though it is not quite sure what it is unwilling to take—rising crime, unemployment, government healthcare, government shut downs, presidential tête-à-têtes, ballot recounts, terrorism, war, unemployment (again), lack of health care, government healthcare (again), the surveillance state, inequality and Wall Street have all filled the proverbial “it” role since Network flashed across the silver screen. That is the paradox of Sidney Lumet’s Network. Mass movements may hinge on the words of a mad prophet but, as the film makes clear, mad prophets are only given their voice by the intractable powers which they antagonize but cannot overcome—“The primal force of nature” as Mr. Jensen, the network chairman, calls them.
Howard Beale, the movie’s insane news anchor, played by Peter Finch in the role for which most people remember him, might be an idealist of sorts, but this does not keep everyone else, from his long-time producer Max Schumacher (William Holden) to the network CEO Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall), from seeing how naïve this position is. Even the film’s narrator—the sardonic, unidentified voice of Lee Richardson—is aware that Howard is a troubled mind who has been given that extra little push over the cliff by his wife’s death.
But, to Howard, his misery and loneliness, coupled with the fact that the network wants to fire him, gives him a new-found sense of clarity. He is confident enough about this that he is willing to say as much on the air, telling the world that he has grown tired of all the “bullsh*t.” Surprising to everyone except Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway), the network’s soulless entertainment producer, is that the American public appears to agree.
Of course, a mad prophet becoming so popular would not be surprising to anyone living in a society that had produced Charles Manson and the Symbionese Liberation Army (in Network parodied as the Ecumenical Liberation Army). But, before the network can entirely embrace the concept, it first has to overcome that obnoxious notion—embodied in the Old School Max Schumacher—that a news program should adhere to those quaint precepts known as “standards”.
This happens easily enough; all that is needed is one missed heartbeat for Frank Hackett to commandeer the network’s leadership and replace Max with Diana. The network climbs toward the Number 1 position. Howard takes over the airwaves shouting that he is mad as hell in a way that would make Bill O’Reilly green, Schumacher packs his office and disappears into obscurity and Hackett and Christensen sell their souls to success, taking out two or three mortgages on them for good measure.
It seems like a good business arrangement: Howard is allowed to say (or more accurately rant) what he wants and the Network chiefs make enough money to make a room of dispassionate, calculating investors chant “We’re Number One! We’re number One!” But the caper only works as long as the content of Howard’s show is consistent with—or does not interfere in—the affairs of the higher powers: i.e. the board members who are prone to the new economy of globalization in ways that are inconsistent with Howard Beale’s stalwart populist gospel. The moment that he starts calling for their heads is the moment that they start looking for opportunities to stab him in the back.
Somewhere between the insane idealists and their lukewarm handlers, Max Schumacher emerges as a human with anxieties and pleasures which seem to align with a world apart from the big, enormous twelve-inch screen. He is not a good man, but Network insists that he is (at least) a man who is aware that the universe does have moral order, even though the whirlwind of mass media are making this moral order more difficult to decipher, even as Howard attempts to explain it to his audience in sound bites.
The contrast between Max and Diana, even while they are sharing the same bed in an ill-fated liaison, could not be sharper. Lumet is heavy-handed in drawing the line between them: Max’s apartment is shown lined wall to wall with books, while the closest thing that Diana has to literature in her apartment are magazines which, when considered in the context of the media she promotes for a living, seem more like hunting trophies.
But in spite of clearly siding with Max, Network has difficulty pretending that the future belongs to him. Unlike Max, neither Diana nor Hackett are haunted by proliferate signs of their impending mortality. The audience has the satisfaction of knowing that Max is right when he tells Diana that she may rule the television waves now, but soon enough she will be throwing herself out her office window. She and Hackett may be doomed in the short term, but, truth be told, there will be other Hacketts and Dianas to follow them, and, unlike Max, such people are more or less interchangeable. There kingdom is very much of this world. This is perhaps the darkest joke in Network: the fact that the audience can walk away, like members of Howard’s cultish audience, believing that justice will be meted out in the world of mass media, while Hackett and Diana have claimed victory—albeit a Pyrrhic one.
Perhaps this message can be taken with an ounce of salt. After all, Network is a satire and does what most satires do. Not only the story but also the acting reinforces the movie’s satirical elements. When the movie was first released, Pauline Kael of New Yorker fame wrote that“The cast … takes turns yelling at us soulless masses.” This is true, though it is unfair. With the exception of William Holden, none of the primary cast digs particularly deep into his or her character; whether it is Diana shouting ecstatically about the show’s ratings or Hackett swearing that he will strangle Howard with an electric cord, every actor overacts the part, but such is the world that television demands, or so Network would have us believe. The world of Network is one which belongs to performers.
Such Juvenalian satire, from the perspective of the digital age, might make Network look as dated as Orwell’s 1984 seemed in 1984. After all, we survived the 1970s and “cool” medium of television, didn’t we? When compared with the computer, the internet and Facebook—postmodern abysses which not only stare back into us but have electronic eyes with which to do so—the demagogic power of the television seems modest.
However, the effect that television has had on our civic institutions cannot be ignored—until C-SPAN, Senate committee hearings used to be dull affairs that even the committee members did not bother attending. All it took was a television camera for people to start calling their representatives to ask them why they weren’t at the hearing and why they weren’t hopping mad about one thing or another. This was enough to turn the previously anodyne Halls of Power into a circus occasionally featuring appearances from such elder statesmen as Glenn Beck, Jon Stewart and Nick Jonas.
No doubt, while things did not work out as Diana and Hackett had hoped, this is precisely the sort of Brave New World that they had in mind: A world where everyone is mad as hell and, by cathartically expressing their anger, find themselves willing to take “it” more and more. Perhaps Howard Beale was a mad prophet in word, but, in deed, it is hard to think of anyone from the 1970s whose actions were more prescient.