*. The one thing we all remember about this movie is Howard Beale (Peter Finch) telling us to go to our windows and yell “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this any more!” And maybe that Peter Finch won an Academy Award for Best Actor.
*. So it makes sense that the narrator begins by telling us that “This story is about Howard Beale . . . ” and concludes by saying “This has been the story of Howard Beale . . .” But all of this is misleading.
*. This is not the story of Howard Beale. As Roger Ebert observes, he is not the main character but is really only “the movie’s sideshow.” We don’t see much of Beale except when he’s performing for a television audience, probably because there isn’t much else to him. Off camera, would you want to spend time getting to know more about this guy?
*. Faye Dunaway actually gets top billing in the opening credits, and unless I’m mistaken she’s never on screen together with Finch. That’s how marginal he is.
*. There were a lot of Oscar nods for the acting, which tells you something about what people thought great acting was at the time. Great acting meant delivering a lot of big speeches.
*. The opening credits are abridged to the four big stars, producer, and director. After the title comes up we get a title screen “by Paddy Chayefsky.” Not “written by.” It does not say that Chayefsky is the writer; it is a film by Paddy Chayefsky. That’s a distinction you don’t see many screenwriters given these days. Indeed I can’t think of any.
*. Today it seems overwritten, on many different levels. In particular, I would suggest four: (1) there is too much talk; (2) the talk typically takes the form of monologues or harangues; (3) there are a lot of big words; and (4) much of the dialogue is shouted or screamed.
*. Let’s quickly break these down.
*. There’s too much talk. According to Dunaway the actors were surprised at the length of the speeches when they saw the script. Ned Beatty’s big scene went on for four pages. That is unheard of for a film script. Most of the “big speeches” you remember from movies are, when you read them in the shooting script, only a few lines.
*. The talk typically takes the form of monologues and harangues. I think this probably owes something to Chayefsky’s theatrical background. I find it makes a lot of the scenes, especially in the second half, stilted and artificial.
*. Beatty found his scene to be “more like doing a speech from Shakespeare that it was like anything I’d ever done for film.” In some places the film gets away with this. These are show biz people, after all, so perhaps talking like this comes naturally to them (you can make the same excuse for some of the “dialogue” in All About Eve). But I find it jarring in the tighter domestic scenes, like Beatrice Straight’s big speech, which she delivers as though she’s on stage (“after twenty-five yeeeeears of building a home and raising a family and alllllll the senseless pain that we have inflicted on each other . . .”), or the awkward and embarrassing scene where Holden gets on his sentimental high horse and lectures Dunaway when he’s leaving her. (And how unlikely is it that Diana would take that kind of shit from a guy like Max?)
*. There are lots of big words. I just don’t buy that so many characters would have such advanced vocabularies. Howard Beale says he’s only insane in a “desultory” way. Well, that’s OK. Max describes his infidelity as making him seem “peccant” (sinful or even diseased). That’s a bigger stretch. But when Beatty roars about “one vast and immane, interwoven, interacting, multivariate, multinational dominion of dollars” I was honestly stumped. Immane? I’d never heard of that word before. It means huge or monstrous, so I guess he’s using it properly, but . . . wow.
*. And nearly every character talks this way. Though it’s kind of funny, and I think inadvertent, that Diana stumbles when she repeats Max’s line about her attempt to “impugn” his “cocksmanship.” In any event, as with the theatrical monologues this inflated vocabulary makes everything seem staged and artificial.
*. The fancy vocabulary is also an odd fit, or really no fit at all, with the overuse of profanity (which was actually pretty risky at the time). It also reinforces my sense that Chayefsky had no ear for bad language. As Twain put it, he knows the words but not the music.
*. There’s too much yelling and screaming. I think this is what Pauline Kael objected to most in her review, “Hot Air.” Howard Beale is one thing, but it seems as though everyone wants to yell at us. They’re all mad as hell at something.
*. But mad at what? Us. The audience. We made them what they are. Beyond that, the movie doesn’t seem to have any political point to make. In fact, it deliberately avoids making one. The Network universe is very much post-political. Beale specifically tells people that he doesn’t want them to write their congressmen (at least at first). Their “mad as hell” battle cry is just a bit of primal scream therapy, not directed at anyone or anything. Diana tells the creators of the Mao Tse-Tung Hour that she doesn’t “give a damn about the political content” of the show. The radical commies, in turn, are more interested in what points they’re getting from residuals than they are in revolution. It’s only when Beale goes off against international capital (an apolitical force) that he gets his knuckles rapped by Jensen/Chayefsky.
*. What are we to make of the switched gender roles? Diana introduces herself as having “a masculine temperament” while Max refers to himself as “menopausal” (an adjective that he only later specifies as “male”). In bed, Diana will climb on top and climax immediately, leaving Max high and dry. Explaining the affair to his wife, Max will cast himself as Anna in Diana’s production of Anna Karenina. Their final break-up will be because of her inability to “commit.”
*. Obviously Diana’s a woman in a man’s world, but I wonder what Chayefsky wanted us to think of that. As something perverse? Unnatural? She’s not a good person.
*. Kael was particularly troubled by this: “Chayefsky, in interviews, actually claims that he has created one of the few movie roles in which a woman is treated as an equal; this can be interpreted to mean that he thinks women who want equality are ditsey little twitches — ruthless, no-souled monsters who take men’s jobs away from them.”
*. Most discussions of Network today focus on the question of how “prophetic” Chayefsky was. I’d give him a mixed grade. There had been earlier satires of the news media before this that were just as scathing and cynical, like Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole. He did foresee the rise of infotainment, a televangelized gospel of wealth, and “reality TV,” though the kind of populist demagoguery Beale represents was nothing new in 1976. The roots of today’s “no-spin” zones and “straight talk” are much deeper. Also a lot of the film was just riffing on the contemporary media landscape. Christine Chubbock had killed herself on air in 1974.
*. Was Beatty’s Jensen also prophetic, with his lecture on how we “no longer live in a world of nations and ideologies” but only free-moving capital and multinational corporations? Was this a foretaste of the End of History? Perhaps, but what interests me is how much Chayefsky bought into such a world view. Is Jensen his God as well as Beale’s?
*. Of course one thing Chayefsky couldn’t have foreseen was the Internet. He understood that television was all about constant change, and the costs that this incurred, but he didn’t foresee the speed of change that the digital revolution would introduce. Today Howard Beale’s rant would “go viral” and he would be forgotten all within twenty-four hours.
*. Most of what I really like in the movie is in the first hour. The dialogue is funnier and more subtle (perhaps funnier because more subtle). I like the way, for example, that no one in the control room is paying any attention to Beale’s meltdown, which is played out on a screen in the background. And then, when it is pointed out to them, how unphased they are. I also like how it’s quickly established that nobody in the office has read the reports Diana has told them to read. Because nobody reads anything. We all know that, it’s just rude to point it out.
*. The direction in the first half is also more quietly effective. I particularly like Diana’s seduction of Max in his office (culminating in her line that she “eats anything”). Note how the camera places her in-between two family photos on Max’s desk. Then we cut to a shot of Max and he shifts his glance just slightly down and away, looking at the photos we know are there, before turning his attention back to her. Then on the next shot we’ve moved in closer, giving us a better look at the photos on his desk. There’s nothing about any of this that draws attention to itself (and indeed Lumet doesn’t mention it at all on the DVD commentary), but it must have all been planned out very carefully.
*. How old is a “middle-aged” man anyway? It’s what Diana is always calling Max, though he says his friends are all either grandparents or dead. Holden was 58 I believe at the time of filming (and Dunaway 35). Personally, I think Holden looks old, not middle-aged. But the news business does that to people.
*. Was the “He likes it! Hey Mikey!” commercial famous before this? Or is its presence at the end here part of what made it so iconic?
*. I think on the whole it’s a movie that holds up pretty well, which is remarkable given the subject matter and how the media landscape has changed. The passion, or “hot air,” has dated the most. What has lasted is the office satire and the cold, bureaucratic cruelty of the ending, very much in keeping with the cinema of paranoia that was so big in the 1970s and which has never gone out of style. We’re still mad as hell, but, enabled by the Internet, much of that anger has turned inward. Which, paradoxically, is just what Howard Beale thought would be our salvation.