Forty-four years ago this month, I fell in love with high-brow cinema. I already loved the movies and probably wanted to see the biggest film of the year, Rocky, during our Thanksgiving film outing. Tickets to see the Italian Stallion were hard to come by and as a result, we ended up in the small theater watching Network. I feel like I am still living it.
In case you are not familiar, Network tells the story of Howard Beale, a past-his-prime anchorman for the struggling UBS network. Corporate raiders backed by the ultimate 1970’s villains, the Arabs, mean to bring changes to the UBS newsroom. Beale react to his imminent firing by going off the deep end, much to the delight of a growing audience. The executive producer, a world-weary news veteran and Beale’s best friend, tries to protect the anchor from making a fool of himself. The up and comers at UBS have other ideas and decide to cash in on their apocryphal mad man.
Adhering to the philosophy that those who comment on films should never reveal the ending, even if it happened four decades ago, we will not discuss the film’s resolution. Suffice it to say the film deserves its reputation as a masterpiece, ranking 66th on the American Film Institute’s Top 100 American movies list. (Rocky clocks in at #78, so it was win-win situation). The film received 10 Academy Award nominations and won four, including three of the four acting categories as well as Best Original Screenplay for Paddy Chayefsky. Tragically, Peter Finch’s Best Actor Oscar was delivered posthumously. Faye Dunaway took home the Oscar for a female lead based on her portrayal of a rising executive willing to go to absurd lengths for ratings.
Finch’s iconic “Mad as Hell” scene and Dunaway’s reactions to the newsman’s rage cemented their awards. Movies are about the suspension of disbelief. For 1976, the industry judged that Peter Finch and Faye Dunaway helped us “disbelieve” better than any other actors when they convinced us that television news would be willing to capitalize on crazy ideas that played to emotion rather than reason; that it was more important to push viewers’ buttons than to report actual news. Were Finch and Dunaway to reprise their roles today they would give great performances, but no awards would come their way. We do not need to suspend our disbelieve to see a newsroom operating the way UBS operated; we can just turn on the television.
In 1976, we could not imagine Walter Cronkite, David Brinkley, Frank Reynolds or John Chancellor acting remotely like the crazed Howard Beale. Paddy Chayefsky could. Paddy happened to be friends with John Chancellor. With the basic idea for the film ruminating around his head, Paddy asked Chancellor whether it wold be possible for a network anchor to go insane on national television. Chancellor gave a straight answer: “Every day.” Chancellor’s response was all Paddy needed to hear to complete his magnum opus. Paddy spent close to a year with an all access pass to the CBS newsroom and Cronkite, an effort that found its reward in a realistic portrayal of a modern newsroom.
The more important element to the screenplay was Chayefsky’s portrayal of what was going to happen as opposed to what was happening. His insights were multiple. First, that journalistic ethics provided no match for profits. Second, that the population was aggrieved in a deeply unsettling way. Third, that the marriage of those two facts would produce a free for all that could not be turned back.
Here we are 44 years later and “I am as mad as hell” plays across the channels constantly. The loudest voice wins. For the very few things that broadcasters refuse to air, we have streaming services as an outlet. In the movie, people rushed to their windows to yell the catch phrase. Today it is dinner table conversation or, better yet, the stuff of social media posts. It is actually easier that way, we can save the wear and tear on our throats by hitting the all caps key.
While I deeply admire the craftsmanship of the film, I have no idea why it resonates so strongly with me. My default outlook is optimism, the movie is as bleak as it gets. The only thing close to a hero the movie offers is the executive producer character played by William Holden. Holden, who also received a best male lead nomination, fights the good fight. But he loses. If you cannot tell, I hate that he loses in the movie and I hate that we have lost our reverence for fact-based news in real life.
By the time Chayefsky wrote the screenplay he was a cynic of the highest order. My question is whether the success of his predictions justified that cynicism. Built into the writer’s criticism of the news industry is a more subtle and more important truth. If the news industry was willing to abandon principles for money, that willingness reflected a market demand for Howard Beale’s histrionics. The consumer is always right. So who is to blame for the fall of fact-based journalism?
In 2019, seniors averaged four hours a day watching television. People aged 25-34 spent half as much time consuming what the networks were selling. The last month has been nothing but glorious weather here in Waco. So maybe Howard Beale was right after all. If we Empty Nesters are dissatisfied with life; if we have rage that must be dealt with, then we do need to rise up. Get up off the couch and march to the set with channel changer in hand. Then turn the thing off and go for a walk. ‘They” will hear you clearly and much better than any all caps post you can send.