When Network was released in November 40 years ago, the poster warned audiences to prepare themselves “for a perfectly outrageous motion picture”. The film was written by Paddy Chayevsky (Marty, The Hospital) and directed by Sidney Lumet (Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon), both of whom made their names in television in the 1950s, and both of whom believed that the industry, and the world, had been in decline ever since.

Network was their furious howl of protest. 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 Chayevksy’s screenplay as one of the 10 best in cinema history. Last year, BBC Culture’s critics’ poll of the 100 best American films ranked Network at 73.

The scary thing is that even Network’s wildest flights of fancy no longer seem outrageous at all

But is it really “perfectly outrageous”? It’s easy to believe that, in 1976, Chayevsky and Lumet’s bleak view of television’s crassness and irresponsibility was deeply shocking. But the scary thing about re-watching Network today is that even its wildest flights of fancy 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.

It opens with a deadpan narrator introducing us to Howard Beale (Peter Finch, who died soon after the film was made, and was awarded a posthumous Oscar), the veteran news anchorman of a fictional New York-based television station, UBS. When he is given two-weeks’ notice as a result of his plummeting ratings, he announces on-air that he will commit suicide on his final programme; brilliantly, the programme’s producers are too busy chatting among themselves to listen. He soon backtracks. He won’t kill himself, he admits, but he will exactly say what’s on his mind. The station’s viewers are thrilled. Rather than sacking him, UBS rebrands him as “the mad prophet of the airwaves”, and encourages him to spout whatever bile comes gushing from his fevered brain. 

Max Schumacher (William Holden), the craggy president of the station’s news division, is appalled that Howard’s nervous breakdown is being exploited for the sake of ratings. But an ambitious producer, Diana Christiansen (Faye Dunaway), creates a glitzy new format for him - half current-affairs strand, half variety show - complete with Sybil the Soothsayer, who predicts the next night’s news, and a gossip specialist called Miss Mata Hari. Her argument is that while Howard may not be particularly coherent, or particularly sane, he is “articulating the popular rage”. His catchphrase now stands as number 19 in the American Film Institute’s list of best movie quotes: “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”

‘Like prophecy’

“Seen a quarter-century later,” wrote Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times in 2000, “it is like prophecy. When Chayevsky created Howard Beale, could he have imagined Jerry Springer, Howard Stern and the World Wrestling Federation?” It’s a fair question. A further 16 years later, though, it’s tempting to ask whether Chayevsky 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. Chayevsky and Lumet had more in common with Sybil the Soothsayer than they knew.

The film was prescient in other areas, too. After Howard goes on air to insist that American businesses should be owned by Americans, he is summoned to a boardroom by the owner of UBS, Arthur Jensen (Ned Beatty), and subjected to a fire-and-brimstone sermon on global capitalism. “You are an old man who thinks in terms of nations and peoples,” fulminates Jensen. “There are no nations. There are no peoples ... There is only IBM and ITT and AT&T, and DuPont, Dow, Union Carbide and Exxon. Those are the nations of the world today. The world is a college of corporations, inexorably determined by the immutable by-laws of business.” Perfectly outrageous? Over the top? On the contrary. In 2016, Beatty’s economic analysis doesn’t prompt any reaction more extreme than a nod and a muttered, “Sad, but true.”

But the most prophetic part of Network has little to do with Howard. Running alongside his story, there is a sharper, funnier subplot concerning Diana’s other brainwave: The Mao Tse-Tung Hour. Her idea is a weekly drama series about a real revolutionary group, the Ecumenical Liberation Army, which incorporates footage of genuine crimes committed by the ELA itself. In short: Diana invents modern reality television.

Ahead of her time?

Diana has her idea when she sees some black-and-white footage of an ELA bank robbery - footage that was shot by the robbers themselves. At first, she is amazed. “You mean, they actually shot this film while they were ripping off the bank,” she marvels. Nowadays, though... well, which terrorist cell bothers to commit any crime without filming it? Which television station or social media outlet would hesitate to show such amateur footage? And the crazy notion that shots of a violent crime scene could be spliced into a weekly television docudrama? It didn’t stop American Crime Story: The People v OJ Simpson winning four Emmy Awards. Network repeatedly tells us that Diana is a diabolical femme fatale and a soulless, ambition-crazed moral vacuum. Actually, she is just ahead of her time.

Diana is a liberated 1970s career woman as well as a classic screwball heroine

Indeed, if several of the characters and concepts in Network have made the journey from ‘outrageous’ to ‘ordinary’ over the past 40 years, Diana has gone further: she now looks a lot like the film’s heroine. It’s true that she is happy to profit from Howard’s instability and, when his ratings founder again, she has no qualms about arranging his assassination. But, well, nobody’s perfect.

Played with breezy confidence by the searingly beautiful Dunaway, Diana is strong, honest, open about her sexual proclivities, and driven by a buzzing enthusiasm for her job. She is a liberated 1970s career woman, as well as a classic screwball heroine: the missing link between Rosalind Russell’s Hildy in His Girl Friday and Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon in 30 Rock. The only pity is that instead of having a Cary Grant or an Alec Baldwin to trade repartee with, she has the pompous and misogynistic Max, so it’s always a relief when she gets to share a scene with her fiery contact at the ELA, a Communist guerilla named Laureen Hobbs (Marlene Warfield). 

Much of Network is depressing to watch now, because it envisages changes in the media which have since come to pass, and they are changes for the worse. But whenever it shows Diana bubbling with innovations, pushing for “counter-culture” and “anti-establishment” programming, and outmanoeuvring the pipe-puffing old men in her way, the film verges on being optimistic. Lumet and Chayevsky probably wouldn’t see it that way, but if there are a few more women like her in network television now than there were in 1976, it has to be change for the better.

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