Movie You Should Watch. In which the overly long motto is:
The title of this article isn’t meant to be a command. It’s not “you” the reader so much as it is a proverbial “you.” Movies a movie fan is meant to watch. I’ll tell you a secret: I hate talking about those kinds of movies. If everyone already knows they’re great, classic, significant movies, what the hell can I add to the conversation? Other than to stammer and say yeah that was good. “Classic for a reason.” Hate it. Bothers me to no end. So like a good little self-aware artist monkey I decided to tackle my weakness head on. That tends to be a good approach, at least for me. Fosters growth and increased skill and all that nonsense. So I’ve decided to really tackle it. I’m always trying to watch these sorts of movies, because I’m a movie fan and it seems necessary, but I figured I’d embrace the challenge and make it one of my ongoing dinky little series.
So with that out of the way lets talk about the classic label. Without quoting Tarkovsky for once. Movies that become essential viewing tend to do so because they succeed artistically across the board. The cinematography, the editing, the story, the acting, it all adds up into one great entity worthy of learning from. Sorry if that seems self-explanatory. The other end is that any one of these things could be so excellent it merits viewing. There are a lot of classic movies with stories and scripts that are way shoddier than you’d think, and lots of movies with nothing spectacular to show in the visual department, but they’re significant or well written. So why should you watch Network? Simply because it’s one of the best written movies ever.
Network is a satirical look at television directed by Sidney Lumet and written by Paddy Chayefsky. If Sidney Lumet’s name sounds familiar it’s because he’s directed a bunch of classics and a bunch of well-remembered films. 12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico, Deathtrap, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, and also Find Me Guilty with Vin Diesel. Yes, I’m just including that because its existence entertains me. Network’s writer is similarly renowned. Chayefsky was a television writer who graduated to film, where he scribed Marty, The Hospital, and Altered States. He’s the only writer to have won three solo Academy Awards for best screenplay.
Network was a critical darling when it came out. It won Academy Awards for Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Original Screenplay. It was also nominated for Best Actor (again), Best Supporting Actor, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Director, and Best Picture (it lost to Rocky). It was nominated for five Golden Globes and won four. It won one Bafta out of the nine it was nominated for. It was later acknowledged by the American Film Institute, ranking 66th of the 100 best movies initially, then moving to the 64th position on the tenth anniversary iteration of the list. Critical response was generally very positive, with Pauline Kael as the ever-notable exception.
Network is actually the only film I’d ever read the script of prior to viewing.
The movie is about a news anchor named Howard Beale whose low ratings and dissatisfaction drive him to hatch a plan. He figures he can solve both his problems by airing his suicide on his show. He announces his plans on air, which gets him fired. His friend Max Schumacher fights to allow Beale some air time to at least have a dignified send-off. However when he gets on air, he starts an impassioned rant about how all of life is bullshit. This, of course, causes the show’s ratings to spike. Running vaguely parallel to this is the story of Diane Christensen, who wants to develop a show devoted to the filmed exploits of a terrorist group. She has a few meetings with the group. Along the way Howard Beale’s show strikes her fancy, and she starts a relationship with Max Schumacher even as she tries to control the Beale show.
Beale’s success starts to wane, until he has a vision one night.
Last night, I was awakened from a fitful sleep at shortly after two o’clock in the morning by a shrill, sibilant, faceless voice that was sitting in my rocking chair. I couldn’t make it out at first in the dark bedroom. I said: “I’m sorry, you’ll have to talk a little louder.” And the Voice said to me: “I want you to tell the people the truth, not an easy thing to do; because the people don’t want to know the truth.” I said: “You’re kidding. How the hell would I know what the truth is?” I mean, you have to picture me sitting there on the foot of the bed talking to an empty rocking chair. I said to myself: “Howard, you are some kind of banjo-brain sitting here talking to an empty chair.” But the Voice said to me: “Don’t worry about the truth. I’ll put the words in your mouth.” And I said: “What is this, the burning bush? For God’s sake, I’m not Moses.” And the Voice said to me: “And I’m not God, what’s that got to do with it—“ And the Voice said to me: “We’re not talking about eternal truth or absolute truth or ultimate truth! We’re talking about impermanent, transient, human truth! I don’t expect you people to be capable of truth! But, goddamit, you’re at least capable of self-preservation! That’s good enough! I want you to go out and tell the people to preserve themselves–“ And I said to the Voice: “Why me?” And the Voice said: “Because you’re on television, dummy! –”
Beale begins to capture the public imagination, prompting them to shout out their windows, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” Which becomes his incredibly successful show’s catchphrase.
Max Schumacher ends up leaving his wife for Christensen. Their relationship is pretty tumultuous, but both parties seem rather smitten. As Beale’s show’s ratings climb it begins to catch the attention of people higher up the network’s food chain. This leads to one of my favourite speeches in the already wonderfully articulate film. Not only is the final execution of this scene marvellous, the scene on the page is stupendous:
He leads HOWARD down the steps to the floor level,
himself ascends again to the small stage and the podium.
HOWARD sits in one of the 200 odd seats. JENSEN pushes
a button, and the enormous drapes slowly fall, slicing
away layers of light until the vast room is utterly
dark. Then, the little pinspots at each of the desks,
including the one behind which HOWARD is seated, pop on,
creating a miniature Milky Way effect. A shaft of white
LIGHT shoots out from the rear of the room, spotting
JENSEN on the podium, a sun of its own little galaxy.
Behind him, the shadowed white of the lecture screen.
JENSEN suddenly wheels to his audience of one and roars
You have meddled with the primal
forces of nature, Mr. Beale, and I
won’t have it, is that clear?! You
think you have merely stopped a
business deal — that is not the
case! The Arabs have taken billions
of dollars out of this country, and
now they must put it back. It is
ebb and flow, tidal gravity, it is
ecological balance! You are an old
man who thinks in terms of nations
and peoples. There are no nations!
There are no peoples! There are no
Russians. There are no Arabs!
There are no third worlds! There is
no West! There is only one holistic
system of systems, one vast and
immane, interwoven, interacting,
dominion of dollars! petro-dollars,
Reichmarks, rubles, rin, pounds and
shekels! It is the international
system of currency that determines
the totality of life on this planet!
That is the natural order of things
today! That is the atomic,
subatomic and galactic structure of
things today! And you have meddled
with the primal forces of nature,
and you will atone! Am I getting
through to you, Mr. Beale?
You get up on your little twenty-
one inch screen, and howl about
America and democracy. There is no
America. There is no democracy.
There is only IBM and ITT and A T
and T and Dupont, Dow, Union Carbide
and Exxon. Those are the nations of
the world today. What do you think
the Russians talk about in their
councils of state — Karl Marx?
They pull out their linear
programming charts, statistical
decision theories and minimax
solutions and compute the price-cost
probabilities of their transactions
and investments just like we do. We
no longer live in a world of nations
and ideologies, Mr. Beale. The
world is a college of corporations,
inexorably determined by the
immutable by-laws of business. The
world is a business, Mr. Beale! It
has been since man crawled out of
the slime, and our children, Mr.
Beale, will live to see that perfect
world in which there is no war and
famine, oppression and brutality –
one vast and ecumenical holding
company, for whom all men will work
to serve a common profit, in which
all men will hold a share of stock,
all necessities provided, all
anxieties tranquilized, all boredom
amused. And I have chosen you to
preach this evangel, Mr. Beale.
Because you’re on television, dummy.
Sixty million people watch you
every night of the week, Monday
HOWARD slowly rises from the blackness of his seat so
that he is lit only by the ethereal diffusion of light
shooting out from the rear of the room. He stares at
JENSEN spotted on the podium, transfixed.
I have seen the face of God!
In b.g., up on the podium, JENSEN considers this
curious statement for a moment.
You just might be right, Mr. Beale.
Isn’t that just an ineffably jaw-dropping thing? Paddy Chayefsky’s turn of phrase and command of language is a thing to behold, and it translates wonderfully to film. It’s easy to see why Pauline Kael labelled the film “overwritten.” Chayefsky’s dialogue is rife with polysyllables and perhaps fantastically articulate individuals. The film is loaded with speeches, long orations meant to stir up emotions and illustrate character. The thing is Chayefsky’s speeches are some of the most iconic ever put on film. The American Film Institute ranks “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore” as being among the best quotes in film. Indeed Howard Beale’s first prophetic speech has simply got to be among films finest. It’s practically up there with Charlie Chaplin’s speech in the Great Dictator.
This meeting inspires Beale to alter his vision, a choice that eventually leads Christensen to hire her terrorist friends to kill him.
Make no mistake either, Sidney Lumet’s direction brings the page to life with an impeccable skill, and his absence would be felt. His goofily stylized camera angles nicely evoke the script’s satirical tone, giving Howard Beale the proper sense of mania and portentousness. The cast is excellent, completely selling the fascinating and occasionally over-the-top characters and the idealized manner in which they speak. It’s a pleasure to watch two or three characters in a room say the phrase “angry prophet denouncing the hypocrisies of our times” in conversation and have it feel natural and funny. It’s easy to see the influence Chayefsky had on writers like Aaron Sorkin in moments like that.
Network is quite simply a marvel. One of those classics that feels almost casually great. It just utterly accomplishes what it sets out to do, and often times that’s enough. It’s a prescient satire backed to the brim with utterly phenomenal writing.
This was the story of Howard Beale who was the network news anchorman on UBS-TV, the first known instance of a man being killed because he had lousy ratings.