Paddy Chayefsky and Sidney Lumet, in partnership as film writer and film director, have left us with one truly amazing piece of cinematic art. It is an extraordinary legacy. Their work together on the film, Network, back in the 1970s – it was adapted as a stage play for the National Theatre in London two years ago – is still almost beyond belief. Almost, but not quite. It is still terrifyingly prescient and terrifyingly real. It is not just a work of art. It is a sobering message for our time.
The film’s genesis was the response of the two me to the frustrations they experienced while trying to write and produce drama for American television in the late sixties and early seventies. The dumbing down of the medium – which to them had shown great artistic and cultural promise in its early days – began in those years. With Network they attempted to show us what the endgame was going to be.
They assembled a cast of superb actors – the late Peter Finch and William Holden, along with Faye Dunaway and Robert Duvall, to name but four of the total ensemble – to fill out this vision of the slide of the medium into crass commercialism and a vehicle for the transmission of imbecilic mindless fodder to pass as entertainment for the masses.
But what is astounding about this work is not just that it put the medium of television under the microscope and predicted where it would be at a point of time in the future. It showed us what this abused artefact of our inventiveness was going to do to our society and what would happen to the individuals, real people, in our society who surrender themselves to this shallow and superficial culture. What they saw happening to the limited information technology available in that age, we can now extrapolate to everything it makes available to us in our age.
Network is a grim satire on our frightening capacity to tear our humanity to shreds – while laughing, applauding and cheering ourselves all the way to the slough of despond. The film is funny but it is an uncomfortable laugh. Satire is like that. Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal is outrageous, and Gulliver’s Travels is funny – a story told to children but with a deeper meaning for adults. Both satires are too close to the bone to enjoy with abandonment. But one difference between Swift’s satire and that of Network is that mankind, to some extent, learned a lesson from Swift. Sadly, we do not seem to have learned anything from Network.
Chayefsky’s screenplay for Network is often regarded as his masterpiece, and has been hailed as “the kind of literate, darkly funny and breathtakingly prescient material that prompts many to claim it as the greatest screenplay of the 20th century.”
Chayefsky was an early writer for television but eventually abandoned it, “decrying the lack of interest the networks demonstrated toward quality programming”. Network was his attempt to bring it to its senses. In itself it is a masterpiece. As a lesson, it failed – so far. Among the dreadful things it predicted was the advent of reality television by over twenty years and the “dehumanization of modern life” that this appalling genre perpetrates.
Nicholas Barber, writing for the BBC back in 2016 on the fortieth anniversary of the film’s release said that Network was Chayefsky and Lumet’s furious howl of protest about the decline of the industry, and the world. “It was a triumphant black comedy, winning four Oscars, being nominated for two more, and going on to be held in ever higher acclaim. In 2006, the Writers Guilds of America chose Chayefsky’s screenplay as one of the 10 best in cinema history.”
At the time of its release Chayefsky and Lumet’s bleak view of television’s crassness and irresponsibility was considered outrageous. Looking at it now we see it differently. We ask ourselves why, when we were warned about this, did we still let it happen? Barber says that we now realise that even its wildest flights of fancy it no longer seem outrageous at all. “The film was so accurate in its predictions that its most far-fetched satirical conceits have become so familiar as to be almost quaint.”
The plot opens with a film noir type narrator telling us about Howard Beale (Peter Finch), a veteran news anchor-man on the UBS (fictional) network who has just been given two-weeks’ notice because his ratings are falling. He confides to his friend that he has decided to take revenge by shooting himself dead on his final show. He backs off from that, but has now got the attention of millions and launches into a diatribe about the world we live in and what the people in charge have been doing to it. On air he asks everyone watching to get up, go to their windows and shout “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” All of New York does so and for the next few hours, across the time zones of the continent, all of America follows suit.
His ratings soar and he becomes “the mad prophet of the airwaves”. The stock of UBS soars as well and it becomes the darling of corporate global business. News now becomes entertainment and the networks all madly rush to the bottom of the barrel – on the strength of the ravings of an unfortunate human being who has now lost his mind. But what do they care they are all making barrels of money?
But his friend, Max Schumacher (William Holden), president of the station’s news division, is appalled that Howard’s mental state is being exploited. He is having and affair with a callous and ambitious producer, Diana Christiansen (Faye Dunaway), and it is through the vehicle of this relationship that Chayefsky exposes the dehumanizing effect of a life lived on these terms. She is so poisoned by the values of her world that she is incapable of any real love or affection. The only positive outcome is that Schumacher, awakening to the realities of that whole sordid world and the monsters it has created, goes back to his wife and family asking for forgiveness.
“Seen a quarter-century later,” wrote Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times in 2000, “it is like prophecy. When Chayefsky created Howard Beale, could he have imagined Jerry Springer, Howard Stern and the World Wrestling Federation?”
Barber in 2016 agreed that was a fair question. “A further 16 years later, though, it’s tempting to ask whether Chayefsky was imagining today’s podcasters, or even today’s shock-jock politicians, who sway voters by “articulating the popular rage” in terms no more sophisticated than Howard’s. Add to that mix the trolls infecting cyberspace on any or all of the social media platforms we live with.
We have every reason to ask ourselves today whether the driving forces behind the multi-billion dollar online communication ventures which dominate our culture have any sense of a duty of care for children whose deaths we read about almost daily and which are connected with the facilities they have launched into our world.
The Daily Telegraph reported on one such tragedy over a week ago. We were told that little Molly Russell was such a “caring soul” that she did not want to burden her parents with the depression she likened to a storm bearing down on her. Instead, the 14-year-old retreated to a terrifying online world algorithmically tailored to encourage her darkest thoughts.
As far as her loving family could see, Molly was happy and doing well: she was a keen rider and sailor and had just landed the lead role in her school’s forthcoming production of Fantastic Mr Fox. But Ian Russell, her father, now believes that in private she was being assailed by graphic images of self-harm and suicide on the social media sites Instagram and Pinterest.
Can we not work out some policies and practical approaches which will allow us to benefit from the great potential which modern technology gives us to do good in the world, without having to experience the evil fictionally suffered by Howard Beale in the 1970s to the palpable evil suffered by so many in our own time?
(‘Network’ is now streaming on Netflix)