Network (1976) is one of great films from the 1970s – it’s also one which is astonishingly prescient and relevant in our 24/7 media era. Directed by Sidney Lumet (1924-2011) and written by Paddy Chayefsky, this biting satire lampoons the nature of 1970s media circles, their push for ever higher ratings, and the immoral techniques they’ll use to get that.
With a cast including Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Robert Duvall, and Peter Finch (in his final film role – he died in January 1977 and posthumously won an Oscar), the burgeoning TV media industry was really starting to get hyperbolic and sensationalist (check out Dog Day Afternoon for one example) and this was something of an antidote at the time. With each passing year, it’s become increasingly insane since then, which makes Network a fascinating satire on how we got to where we are today.
The plot was apparently inspired (although Lumet denied this) by one Christine Chubbock, a 29 year old TV presenter from America. In a fit of depression, she committed suicide live on air one morning. We remember discovering this story back in 2006 and wondered why there wasn’t more coverage about the incident, but in recent years there have been a batch of films detailing her life. In 1974, whilst live on air, Chubbuck pulled a gun from underneath her desk and said:
"In keeping with Channel 40's policy of bringing you the latest in 'blood and guts', and in living color, you are going to see another first - attempted suicide."
Lumet may have denied any connection to Chubbuck’s story, but the film’s focus on veteran broadcast journalist Howard Beale’s (Finch) mental disintegration is very similar. After being informed he’s going to be fired by the production studio due to declining ratings, on his next broadcast he announces to viewers he’ll commit suicide live on air to mark his final appearance on TV.
His studio, USB, fires him immediately due to the outburst, but his friend and colleague Max Schumacher (Holden) convinces them to let him have one final show for a dignified farewell. However, once back on air Beale begins another ranting diatribe about the nature of industry and life (which he calls “bullshit”), which also leads to a legendary quote from the cinema history.
This manic ranting about the difficulties in life turn Beale into a prophet of sorts and his viewing figures surge enormously. He’s promptly provided with a prime-time slot called the Howard Beale Show which is billed as “The Mad Prophet of the Airwaves”. This is all manipulated by Diana Christensen (Dunaway), an ambitious young workaholic who heads USB’s programming department.
Despite his career seemingly being restored, it’s clear Beale is actually suffering a mental breakdown and in need of medical help. Schumacher attempts to intervene in order to save the man’s life, but the power-play that runs its course indicates modern broadcast journalism has dropped its ethics in favour of pursuing, at any cost, higher ratings.
With its terrific cast and Oscar winning performances from a batch of talented stars, plus that prescient script, Network really is a film that’s come into its own over the last decade. It’s a damning indictment of an industry obsessed with ratings over morality, and whilst modern films like Nightcrawler (2014) have attempted to provide similar social commentary, nothing has quite topped Network’s remarkable considerations on a world going mad.
Righto, there was recently a critically acclaimed stage adaptation doing the rounds in London, with Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston as Howard Beale. Lee Hall adapted it to stage, with direction from Ivo Van Hove, and it had its run from November 2017 to March 2018. It was very well received (described as “dazzling” by one critic), so let’s hope it gets another run sometime, eh? Not all of us can make it to London at the drop of a hat, you know?