Network, An Unlikely Prophecy

Network is a 1976 film directed by the legendary Sidney Lumet, director of 12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, and more. It stars Peter Finch in his career-defining role as Howard Beale, the aging news anchor being forced off the program by Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall), the hot-shot boss of UBS Studios, because of poor ratings. In one of his final appearances, Beale announces that he will shoot himself on air in 2 weeks. Beale is fired soon after, but Beale’s oldest friend Max Schumacher (William Holden) convinces the network to let him on the air one last time for a formal goodbye. But, once on the air, Beale instead goes on a rant about how all aspects of life are “bull****.” Shumacher, the man responsible for taking him off the air, lets him rant to spite the corporate heads of UBS. To the shock of studio heads, the ratings on Beale’s rant are astronomical. The ambitious Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) persuades the network to give Beale his own program, raving about the issues of the time.

If you’ve heard of Network for any reason, well, it’s probably because of the incredible “Mad as Hell” monologue. But the real reason why Network has remained a classic to this day is how it predicted the future of media and entertainment. Beale might have been proclaimed a prophet in the movie, but the real prophet is screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky, using his story of Howard Beale to touch on every facet of modern entertainment, and how everything that happens is only to improve ratings. Before the plot even kicks into full gear, the act of giving Beale his own show foreshadows the many instances of sacrificing morals for ratings. We see this all the time today, not only on TV but on platforms like YouTube as well. While watching this film I couldn’t help but comparing Beale to a person like Alex Jones, who makes a spectacle himself online by going on rants about (what he believes) are truths of the world.

One scene that I found particularly interesting was Beale’s rant against the purchasing of UBS by a Saudi Arabian conglomerate. He goes on and on about an Arabian invasion of our banks, businesses, and economy as a whole. This monologue contains some of the points discussed in a documentary film like Fahrenheit 9/11, in which people really start to focus on the hold Saudi Arabia has over America. That film was released over 25 years after Network.

And it’s not just the main character’s story that’s revealing about the entertainment of today. A Shumacher quote I found interesting was “You are television incarnate, Diana.” We see throughout the film Diana acting as a ringleader for all the chaos that ensues on television and throughout the film. She even goes so far as to create a program following the exploits of a terrorist group. This may be reflecting how, after the highly publicized tragedies of the Vietnam War got a lot of attention from audiences, the news and entertainment became obsessed with things like war and acts of terrorism, something that is more evident now than ever. Diana is always thinking of a new scoop, emblematic of the constructed stories many news outlets produce.

But regardless of whether or not Network produced a recognizable recreation of our modern culture climate, it still remains an incredibly gripping film. Maybe one could argue that it lacks subtlety, but this film makes its over-the-topness work, allowing it to elevate the entertainment industry to almost ridiculous heights, connecting it to the spiritual and existential, welcoming interpretation from the viewer. It’s impeccably acted, excellently directed, flawlessly paced, and the writing is absolutely legendary. Who would have that a film about news stations could be one of the most thought-provoking works of our time.