You know the names Anderson Cooper, Rachel Maddow, Chuck Todd, Norah O’Donnell, and George Stephanopoulos, but do you remember Howard Beale? TV’s anchor–desk jockeys owe much of their prominence to Howard Beale, their alarmist role model from the 1976 film Network.
The moral status claimed by these politically motivated newsreaders during the COVID-19 confinement — they aim to influence public opinion under the guise of presenting “smart” news — pinpoints the tragedy that has befallen contemporary journalism, and it prompts a surprising film-culture realization: that there will never be a remake of Network. The wild Paddy Chayefsky–Sidney Lumet farce became an accidental “classic” as it won acclaim from media folk who extolled it as confirmation of their self-serving, know-it-all cynicism.
While Disney has demonstrated the temerity of Millennial Hollywood to reboot anything into CGI, Network’s satire of television — mocking the shamelessness of media professionals whose egotism is matched only by their greed — cuts close to the bone, yet not deep enough. Millennial media power brokers are eternally thin-skinned and humorless. That’s why their political biases are so “adamantine,” as a Network TV executive played by Robert Duvall exclaimed, using Chayefsky’s highly sprung vocabulary.
Network’s hysteria is irrelevant to today’s climate in which CBS, NBC, and ABC are more blatantly partisan than Chayefsky’s fictitious UBS. Fans of Network who cite the film as a cautionary tale ignore what really accounts for the film’s status: Chayefsky dared to bite the hand that fed him. He wasn’t aiming at some phantom ideology or faceless idiocy, even when putting down a generalized audience of boob-tube addicts. The satire is squarely aimed at powerful people who offended Chayefsky’s personal sense of morality following his early career during the 1950s, the original “golden age” of TV.
Instead of examining politics, the film aims at specific stereotypes — manic news anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch), pompous network news producer Max Schumacher (William Holden), and rapacious entertainment producer Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway). They each represent figures made sacrosanct today, hypocrites who hide behind political correctness.
Another reason Network couldn’t be remade today is that these potentates know how to shield and defend themselves. No matter how much reality TV gluts the airwaves, we’re never shown what goes on behind the scenes of newsrooms. No one takes responsibility for the conspiracy theories that pass for mainstream media perspective — one person’s truth, another person’s “fake news.” Recall the media uproar when Clint Eastwood’s Richard Jewell depicted a newspaper reporter in the style of Dunaway’s Christensen, and then remember the shallow, vengeful harridans of last year’s Bombshell. The masters of media — this would include the contemptuous, censorious hipsters of Silicon Valley — do not allow criticism.
A remake of Network would require that the media, from New York to Los Angeles and the Bay Area, make an honest assessment of itself. But, as procrastinating politicians say, we’re just not there yet. So let’s take a closer look at this over-revered landmark.
Sidney Aaron “Paddy” Chayefsky was 53 when the film premiered, Lumet was 52, which marks Network as the vision of a middle-aged white man. (“You’re in for some dreadful grief,” warns Max’s wife hilariously hyped by Beatrice Straight in her Oscar-winning turn.) Chayefsky and Lumet’s dyspeptic fantasy belongs to the generation that was inordinately influenced by the exaggerated self-pity of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1949), a post-WWII blame-shifting melodrama posing a flat-footed Hamlet as a national tragic figure. That sanctimonious perspective soured into the presentation of Network’s two aging male protagonists as prey to the villainy of young Diana Christensen — Chayefsky’s fearful vision of the encroaching feminist movement commandeering the ’70s zeitgeist. In the Millennial zeitgeist, feminist priorities, swallowed by women and men who actually endorse the #MeToo movement, now run the networks and set the ideological policies that pass for news — proof of TV execs’ woke seriousness. “I don’t want to play butch-boss with you people!” Dunaway sasses in her Oscar-winning role.
Network’s sentimental journalism fantasy, second only to the insidious All the President’s Men, uses the profession’s muckraking legend as the source of its rant against the changing, coarsening culture of the 1970s. (Chayefsky had fiddled the same tune on his tiny violin in The Hospital, from 1971). Chayefsky’s Old Left conservatism has become the “fundamentally transform America” progressivism that motivates today’s mainstream broadcasters. What hasn’t changed is that media pros refuse to own up to their self-serving choices and mendacity, which takes us right back to Arthur Miller’s fallacies in Death of a Salesman. Lumet’s well-cast mix of WASP and Jewish types shrewdly observes the New York media landscape. They are all typically guilt-ridden liberals who take no moral position on their work, which is exactly the silly action of people without creedal commitment.
When Howard Beale goes into his “mad prophet of the airwaves” rage, he simply explains “I’ve just run out of bullshit. Bullshit is the reasons we give for living. When we can’t come up with reasons of our own, we always have the God bullshit.” Now that progressivism has become mainstream media’s new religion, it is no longer considered BS.
Chayefsky’s anger goes way overboard. Not just in turning out the word-buzziest screenplay ever written (nowhere else will you hear “auspicatory,” “oraculate,” “peccant,” “cosmology,” “emeritus,” and “big-titted” in the same movie) but also when he pretends to get to the crux of the problem of television by praising/blaming Communism: “All boredom amused. . . . The individual is finished.” A trivial, smart-ass, pseudo-evangelical jeremiad — the essence of Millennial snark — is all Chayefsky’s got.
Is there an audience today that can see past Network’s delusions? Its media-class sentimentality begins with introducing Beale as “a mandarin of television, the grand old man of news” whose fortunes began to decline. But Chayefsky’s outrageous notion of “putting a manifestly irresponsible man on television” has become standard operating procedure — whether it’s Chris Matthews, Keith Olbermann, Don Lemon, Joy Behar, Joy Reid, or Adam Schiff.
Beale is their role model, yet Beale’s most famous rant — “Stick your head out and yell, ‘I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!’” — is couch-potato rebellion. Chayefsky could not have prophesied the daily ritual of COVID-19 house-arrest TV-watchers who, at the designated hour, obey the “stay at home” advice by banging pots and pans in noisy compliance. Their confused restlessness and futility are too complicated — too sad — to be expiated by Network’s self-aggrandizing carnival.
Network’s corporate president Chaney (Wesley Addy) declares Beale’s outrageous behavior to be “unconscionable!” Now, “unconscionable” describes everyday fake news. If Network is remake-proof, it’s because we need catharsis, not sarcasm, which is a privilege of the elite.