I’ll be honest. Network only recently became one of my favorite films. I saw it shortly after it was released in late 1976 but let some 30 years elapse before watching it over Thanksgiving. When I first saw it, I considered it biting commentary. Now, sadly, I consider it prescient.
Perhaps best known for the phrase, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore,” Network was a frontal assault on television. The plot is straightforward. Network news anchor Howard Beale (played by Peter Finch) is being let go and, on (or over) the brink of a psychological breakdown, announces he will commit suicide during his last broadcast. Ratings go through the roof and Beale, billed as the “mad prophet,” soon is hosting a nightly “news” program in which he rants and raves and that includes such regulars as Sybil the Soothsayer.
Another plot element gives us a romance between a veteran who helped create television news (William Holden) and a young television executive (Faye Dunaway). His sensibility and caring stands in sharp, almost too blatant, contrast to a woman raised watching television who views and treats life like episodic television.
The movie has a 90 percent rating at Rotten Tomatoes and found plenty of success. Finch and Dunaway won best actor and actress awards at both the Oscars and the Golden Globes while Paddy Chayefsky did the same with the best screenplay award. The movie ranked 66th in the American Film Institute’s 1997 100 Best American Movies and moved up two places in the 2007 edition. The “mad as hell” line also ended up 19th on the AFI’s list of the 100 best movie quotes. In 2000, the film was named to the U.S. National Film Registry by the National Film Preservation Board.
Back in the late ’70s, many of us could identify with not only Network‘s views on television but also the disillusion, cynicism and anger. Fostered in part by Vietnam, Watergate and the oil crisis, we were “mad as hell.” Thus, Howard Beale was really striking a chord when he said, “All I know is, you’ve got to get mad. You’ve got to say, ‘I’m a human being, goddamn it. My life has value.'” For the most part, though, it was film idealism that never really reached fruition. We’re still mad — and mad about many of the same things, war, gas prices, the economy and politicians.
On the television side, Network envisioned a world in which ranting and raving took the place of independent and enterprising journalism, a television network’s entertainment division runs the news department and the any lines remaining between television and reality are blurred at best. Sound familiar? It should. Do names like Howard Stern, Beck or O’Reilly fit that world? How long have we been getting pablum from the “Eyewitless News” teams, both national and local? And the icing on the cake is that the term “reality television,” not only means something, it is a powerhouse.
I remain “mad as hell” about television. That’s why I take Beale’s exhortation to “turn off this goddam [TV] set” to heart. And that’s why watching Network last month makes it a favorite film.
And when the twelfth largest company in the world controls the most awesome goddamned propaganda force in the whole godless world, who knows what shit will be peddled for truth on this network?
Howard Beale (Peter Finch), Network