Sidney Lumet’s Network (1976) is a grimly satirical film about the grimly cynical business of network news — which is not to say it’s about journalism, mind you. It seems to be about everything but. Network, written by the great Paddy Chayefsky (Altered States, Marty) was probably considered sobering and cautionary when it was released — immediately after Watergate and Vietnam, during the Ford administration. Today, ita warnings about the dilution of journalistic standards in the hunt for ratings and in an effort to turn around public disaffection seem a bit done. Not irrelevant, just sadly familiar.
But the film is predictably well-crafted. Oscar-winner Peter Finch’s raving prophet Howard Beale is iconic, a voice in the wilderness as “mad as Moses,” as one character describes him early in the film. Beale loses his job as the evening anchor for the UBS network after an on-camera meltdown over “bullshit” only to score huge ratings with a final broadcast rant that sends listeners to their windows to scream the film’s famous line — “I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore.”
Watching Beale come into new stardom are his friend, the former head of UBS news, Max Schumacher (a stolid William Holden); the glibly manipulative head of UBS programming Diana Christensen (Oscar-winner Faye Dunaway), who knows a goldmine when she sees one, especially one that helps the American people “articulate their rage;” and the greedy and self-serious chief bean-counter for the network’s parent company CCA, Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall). The narrative is a bit of a chaotic whirligig, not unlike network television itself, and interweaves subplots of marital infidelity, Arab investment and political insurrection for the story’s inevitable and bloody climax.