The ‘Outrageous’ 40-Year-Old Film That Predicted the Future
Forty years ago this month Network was released to widespread acclaim. But its shocking satire turned out to be eerily prescient, writes Nicholas Barber.
by Nicholas Barber
November 30, 2016
When Network was released in November 40 years ago, the poster warned audiences to prepare themselves “for a perfectly outrageous motion picture”. The film was written by Paddy Chayevsky (Marty, The Hospital) and directed by Sidney Lumet (Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon), both of whom made their names in television in the 1950s, and both of whom believed that the industry, and the world, had been in decline ever since.
Network was their furious howl of protest. It was a triumphant black comedy, winning four Oscars, being nominated for two more, and going on to be held in ever higher acclaim. In 2006, the Writers Guilds of America chose Chayevksy’s screenplay as one of the 10 best in cinema history. Last year, BBC Culture’s critics’ poll of the 100 best American films ranked Network at 73.
The scary thing is that even Network’s wildest flights of fancy no longer seem outrageous at all
But is it really “perfectly outrageous”? It’s easy to believe that, in 1976, Chayevsky and Lumet’s bleak view of television’s crassness and irresponsibility was deeply shocking. But the scary thing about re-watching Network today is that even its wildest flights of fancy no longer seem outrageous at all. The film was so accurate in its predictions that its most far-fetched satirical conceits have become so familiar as to be almost quaint.
It opens with a deadpan narrator introducing us to Howard Beale (Peter Finch, who died soon after the film was made, and was awarded a posthumous Oscar), the veteran news anchorman of a fictional New York-based television station, UBS. When he is given two-weeks’ notice as a result of his plummeting ratings, he announces on-air that he will commit suicide on his final programme; brilliantly, the programme’s producers are too busy chatting among themselves to listen. He soon backtracks. He won’t kill himself, he admits, but he will exactly say what’s on his mind. The station’s viewers are thrilled. Rather than sacking him, UBS rebrands him as “the mad prophet of the airwaves”, and encourages him to spout whatever bile comes gushing from his fevered brain.
Max Schumacher (William Holden), the craggy president of the station’s news division, is appalled that Howard’s nervous breakdown is being exploited for the sake of ratings. But an ambitious producer, Diana Christiansen (Faye Dunaway), creates a glitzy new format for him – half current-affairs strand, half variety show – complete with Sybil the Soothsayer, who predicts the next night’s news, and a gossip specialist called Miss Mata Hari. Her argument is that while Howard may not be particularly coherent, or particularly sane, he is “articulating the popular rage”. His catchphrase now stands as number 19 in the American Film Institute’s list of best movie quotes: “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”
“Seen a quarter-century later,” wrote Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times in 2000, “it is like prophecy. When Chayevsky created Howard Beale, could he have imagined Jerry Springer, Howard Stern and the World Wrestling Federation?” It’s a fair question. A further 16 years later, though, it’s tempting to ask whether Chayevsky was imagining today’s podcasters, or even today’s shock-jock politicians, who sway voters by “articulating the popular rage” in terms no more sophisticated than Howard’s. Chayevsky and Lumet had more in common with Sybil the Soothsayer than they knew.
WATCH | Peter Finch in Network (1976) Mind Control Speech