Film: Still Mad as Hell

Network turns 30 but remains timely and prophetic

20th Century Fox

Consider the following: "I want angry shows! I want anti-establishment! I want counterculture!"

"We're not a responsible network; we're a whorehouse network."

"You're talking about putting a manifestly irresponsible man on television."

If you think the first is the mantra HBO, the second is the anonymous confession of a FOX executive and the third is heard every time a new talk show is developed, you might be right. Those quotes, however, were written by the late, great Paddy Chayefsky and are from the classic film Network, which ignited then-new multiplex screens 30 years ago this month.

Released on the cultural cusp between Watergate and Disco, Network nabbed three of the four 1976 acting Oscars and brought Chayefsky his third screenplay award. For perspective keep in mind this was the same year All the President's Men was up for Best Picture, Jodie Foster almost nabbed supporting actress for playing a 12-year-old hooker in Taxi Driver (Network's one-scene wonder, Beatrice Straight, scored the upset) and Sylvester Stallone was nominated in both the acting and writing categories. Yes, the '70s were strange.

Network's plot revolves around a fictional fourth network called UBS (remember, this was a good decade before FOX) and what it does to pull itself out of last place in the ratings. When its veteran anchorman, Howard Beale (posthumous Best Actor winner Peter Finch), is fired he suffers what amounts to a nervous breakdown and announces he is going to commit suicide on air. Naturally, ratings skyrocket.

If you've been watching the new TV season and this seems vaguely familiar, you're right. The same basic situation was the jumping off point for NBC's Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, itself a barely disguised dissection of the inner workings of Saturday Night Live. The good news is writer/creator Aaron Sorkin, West Wing-wunderkind and heir apparent to Chayefsky, immediately referenced the film within his own show and wisely moved on.

A power-hungry programming executive — Faye Dunaway at her raw-nerved, Oscar-winning best — seizes the moment by turning the newly energized Beale, rechristened "the mad prophet of the airwaves," into a rage-driven spokeswoman for the viewing masses. She is fully supported by network brass, including a ruthless shark played by Robert Duvall, who never seems to stop yelling. The other major player is an old-school news executive, sublimely played by William Holden, who locks horns with Dunaway even as they lock body parts.

Like The Godfather films, Network is a touchstone movie of the '70s. And just as The Godfather immortalized the line, "I'm going to make him an offer he can't refuse," Network gave us the era's most famous call to arms. Beale tells his viewing audience that, if they're fed up, they should go to their windows and yell, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore!" They do, of course, and the line remains the cri de coeur of the disgusted and disenfranchised. It's what most of us want to scream every day when we're at work, stuck in traffic or, well, watching TV.

Although initially dismissed by some critics as over-the-top satire, Network quickly proved prophetic.

"Satire?" director Sidney Lumet deadpanned when the AFI named it one of its 100 Greatest American movies in 1998. "It was sheer reportage."

Both Chayefsky and Lumet had successful careers in television and knew the medium inside-out. They saw what was just around the corner, and both cable and broadcast TV surpassed their fictional madness years ago. The film has its quaint, dated trappings (no cell phones or computers and shows like Little House on the Prairie are reigning hits), but it's eerily timeless.

And it remains timely, too, in the post-9/11 world of comedy news shows and that greatest of oxymorons, "reality television." NBC Universal just cut its budget 5 percent and plans to save $750 million more in the next year by consolidating its news division, eliminating scripted dramas and comedies and keeping game and reality shows.

"Most people use television as a narcoleptic tool," rationalized one executive in a recent NPR interview.

There are two major, inter-related subplots in Network. One is that UBS is owned by the 12th-largest corporation in the world and is about to be sold to the Saudis. The other involves the development of a show called "The Mao Tse Tung Hour," in which a radical fringe group is paid to stage terrorist acts so they can be taped and broadcast.

The specific inspirations are the '70s' oil "crisis" and Patty Hearst (now an occasional movie actress!), but the implications are equally fresh and rancid. The film's funniest, most frightening scene involves the network suits negotiating with the terrorists for, among other things, subsidiary syndication rights. In short, do the math.

The final punchline of Network is that a man is assassinated on-air because his ratings drop. Impossible? Just remember why Jack Kevorkian finally ended up in prison. Think how many times you've seen the footage of planes hitting the Twin Towers. Keep in mind why some media-fed-but-hungry young males open fire in their high schools.

Even if you're pushing 40 and thought there were no subversive takes on TV — the most subverted of mediums — prior to, say, Garry Shandling or The Truman Show, think again. Just pop in a copy of Network. Maybe even follow it with TV veteran John Frankenheimer's original 1962 version of The Manchurian Candidate, but that's another story. Either way, watch the movie, connect the dots and then ask yourself: Are we still mad as hell? Are we going to take it anymore? Did Jackass: Number Two open to both big box office and good reviews?

Stay tuned.

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