On Watching 'Network' (1976)

September 25, 2021 - 5 min read

Reading and translating Chekhov's Two Newspapermen finally nudged me to write a review on one of my favourite films, Network (1976). You will see the connection.

This masterpiece was sadly overlooked by me for a long time. It seems it is known mostly to Sidney Lumet’s (the director) or Paddy Chayefsky’s (the writer) fans, avid cinephiles or screenwriters. I attribute myself to all these four groups, vaguely at least, and have watched a lot of other films directed by Sidney Lumet but to my shame missed Network. Then, while teaching myself screenwriting, I saw this film in various listicles like “Top 100 Screenplays Every Screenwriter Must Read”. Network won four Academy Awards and one of them was for the Best Original Screenplay. I know, winning even a bunch of Oscars doesn't necessarily claim a film as a masterpiece but the Network truly is a masterpiece and today I want to talk about it.

You can read this essay before watching or after watching the film. I will reveal some plot details but only to add some context and discuss the theme. And if you want (I know you do, don’t lie to me) to read Chayefsky’s remarkable script, here's the button you can click:

Network's Screenplay

Now we can start.

Network is not a story about one person. It's a story about how people live, work together and… exploit each other. Although at the beginning the film introduces us to Edward Beale (Peter Finch), a network news anchorman, he is not the main character, nor Max Schumacher (William Holden), the UBS-TV’s news division director, where both men work approaching retirement. They sit and drink heavily in a bar exchanging anecdotes and pulling nostalgia’s strings. By the end of this scene, Beale says to Schumacher that he is going to commit suicide right during his live news show. As both of them are drunk, Schumacher does not take Beale seriously and laughs at him, but we, attentive viewers, understand that it is not a joke, it is what the film is about, and we, optimistic viewers, will be waiting for Beale killing himself from this very first scene. This is what this film does with you. You want Beale to do something mad.

And not only you.

In the next scene, we have transferred into the news division’s backstage. (Don't worry, I'm not retelling the whole film here) We are put at the beginning of the process of running a news show where Beale is the anchorman. Everything going behind the cameras is so mundane and almost automatic that only a few people notice that Beale says to the whole country that just in one week he is going to kill himself, live. Now, it is getting serious. UBS wants to fire Beale but Schumacher intervenes with a proposition of Beale having a dignified farewell. Beale promises to apologise but when the time comes and his last broadcast begins, Beale bursts with rants and tirades yelling that "life is bullshit".

Guess what happens next? The show's rating spike and UBS ends up keeping Beale in their program allowing him to tell everything he wants. The audience likes watching the old man yelling "life is bullshit" (apparently).

This is where the film really starts and we get dipped into all the dirt and shit of TV network’s behind-the-scenes.

Then, through relationships between various characters – mostly Max Schumacher, who we already know, and Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway), a programming chief – we see how Edward Beale, an insane and mentally sick man being exploited by the lucrative TV network with the only goal in mind.

To grow TV ratings.

And Beale doesn't mind. It's his finest hour and, almost being retired, Beale becomes needful again. He becomes "the mad prophet of the airways". Yes, a puppet, but also a prophet. Who doesn’t want to be a prophet anyway? His rants are being broadcasted live and millions of Americans watch and listen closely. They enjoy the crazy and angry old man moaning and yelling about the decline of the US, the dominance of big corporations over the state, and about people, the people who watch him and listen to his Savonarola-type tirades every week.

Take this Beals monologue (full video), for example:

"Because less than 3% of you people read books! Because less than 15% of you read newspapers! Because the only truth you know is what you get over this tube. Right now, there is a whole, an entire generation that never knew anything that didn't come out of this tube! This tube is the Gospel, the ultimate revelation."

The audience watches and listens to him in silence, absorbing every word, and then he faints, a full symphony orchestra soars into an imperial crescendo, and the audience starts clapping their hands. It is so bizarre and absurd yet it gives me goosebumps every time I watch it. And it’s just one scene.

The answer is it is not life-affirming ("shmife affirming", as Billy from Seven Psycopath would say). It is the antithesis of life-affirming. It strikes with all its postmodern bitterness and, after the narrator says his last line and screen fades black, leaves you rather dismal, uncomfortable and lost. No happy ending. No characters overcoming struggles or having self-revelations, only cynical dissection of the dark sides of media, in the case of the film, television, the cornerstone of the postmodern generation. There’s no solution, no revelation, you should come up with it yourself.

However, the film is not about television.  It is about the audience. You can replace 'watching the tube' with 'being online' and the film will still work but reveal itself from a new, timeless side. Neither television nor social media are evil. Ratings and likes do not generate themselves. We generate them. The film is about you and me, all of us. I am the one who watched Beale going mad and being a clown. I am the one who enjoyed it. And so will you, I hope.

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