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Message Movie

by Peter Tonguette

Mad as Hell: The Making of Network and the Fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in Movies, by Dave Itzkoff (Times Books, 304 pp., $27)

In this authoritative telling of the making of Sidney Lumet’s widely admired 1976 film Network, Dave Itzkoff leaves no stone unturned. Included are endlessly detailed accounts of every stage of the inception, production, and exploitation of the tale of schizoid television newsman Howard Beale and the forces in the media who stand to benefit from his sickness. You will learn how screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky researched the film by paying visits to NBC and CBS, and how the project took shape through Chayefsky’s laborious writing process. You will learn how mathematically precise Lumet had to be in staging a sex scene with anxious participants William Holden and Faye Dunaway. You will learn not only what Chayefsky said the night he won an Oscar for writing Network, but also what he said the following year, when he was there to announce that night’s winner.

And there is more. Although Itzkoff frames the book as a quasi-biography of Chayefsky (an unusual and admirable decision given how much ink is spilled in books of this kind on directors), he does not give short shrift to any of the film’s other main figures, Lumet, Holden, and Dunaway among them. For example, not only does Itzkoff document the fascinating interplay between Chayefsky and Lumet on Network — the domineering scribe working mostly tranquilly with the well-established auteur — but he goes on to describe what happened afterward, with Lumet feeling insulted when asked to essentially take a pay cut on Chayefsky’s follow-up, Altered States.

While much of this is interesting, at a certain point — perhaps when Itzkoff has taken us to the conclusion of Network’s editing process, but we still have another 100 or so pages to go — it starts to feel like padding. It is one thing to detail the tragically inopportune death of Peter Finch, who so memorably played Howard Beale and who was struck down by a heart attack while doing publicity for the film that relaunched his career, ultimately winning him a posthumous Oscar for Best Actor. But is it essential to accompany Holden and Dunaway on highlights from their pre- and post-Network careers — to know that Dunaway was at odds with her agent, Sue Mengers, after she won her Oscar, or that Holden mailed Chayefsky Christmas cards on which he suggested they see each other the next time Chayefsky was in Palm Springs?

As the tangential anecdotes mount, Mad as Hell starts to feel like a heap of Internet Movie Database–style trivia bound between two covers. Devoting a full-length book to a single artistic creation is not the easiest assignment. By contrast, countless films course through the 500-odd pages of Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, which is also set in the American film scene of the 1970s. Those familiar with Network will remember the early moment in which producers at a midday meeting meticulously whittle away at news items to get them to fit the time allotted on air — perhaps the point is how regrettable it is to turn current affairs into sound bites, but we wish Itzkoff (a reporter for the New York Times) had had a similar appetite for brevity here.

Of course, Itzkoff accords Network such comprehensive treatment because he considers the film to be greatly significant. There is no question that it is among the finest works of many of those involved, especially Chayefsky. “It’s as if you’ve been rehearsing all your life to write it,” filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich wrote to Chayefsky. If the summit of his screenwriting career had remained Marty or The Hospital (his best-known works prior to Network), it is unlikely he would be spoken of very much today. Similarly, few films can be said to have introduced a meme as potent as Howard Beale’s “mad as hell” speech, though it irked Chayefsky to see it poached thoughtlessly (as it is in the film itself).

At the same time, is Network really that much better than other films about postwar American culture? Its acrid satire calls to mind Dr. Strangelove, as Chayefsky himself recognized in notes he made when he was hatching the project: “Now, all this is Strangelove-y as hell, can we make it work?” And as a portrait of the media, it is certainly less reverential, but not necessarily more effective or accurate, than All the President’s Men (also released in 1976 and a winner of four Oscars).

Itzkoff’s claims for Network rest largely on how its various predictions panned out. In the film, the sudden onset of mental illness in Beale (his response to forced retirement is to announce plans to kill himself on live TV) inspires his bosses at the fictitious UBS network to forgo traditional newscasts in favor of giving the floor to Beale’s nonsensical philippics, and hastens changes in the structure and ownership of the network. But while Itzkoff rightly notes that the film anticipated “the unraveling of the monolithic broadcasting companies, the diminishment of their once-mighty news operations, and the path to a fragmented and unrecognizable media environment,” these things haven’t occurred because the media have been taken over by a legion of Howard Beales.

Itzkoff is unconvincing when he gingerly compares Edward R. Murrow’s “urbane small talk” on Person to Person to the off-the-wall candor of Howard Beale, who delivered his “mad as hell” speech after spending the day prowling the city in a raincoat and pajamas during a thunderstorm. While Chayefsky scatters pieces of wisdom in Beale’s rants, it is an overstatement to claim, as Itzkoff does, that he is “severely punished for enunciating some necessary and uncomfortable truths.” To the contrary, there is little doubt that we are meant to agree with the assessment of UBS News president Max Schumacher (Holden) — “I think you’re having a breakdown” — and that Chayefsky is not valorizing Beale. We have the distinct impression that Beale’s viewers tune in not to hear someone “talking sense to the American people,” as it were, but instead to watch broadcast journalism’s equivalent of a car wreck. Itzkoff suggests that Glenn Beck and Jon Stewart are among Beale’s progeny, but it is left to Stephen Colbert to issue the necessary caution, as quoted in the book, that Beale is “a hopeless character who ultimately does not succeed in what he wants to do, and is killed. He’s not a messianic figure.”

But Itzkoff properly prizes Network’s unexpectedly conservative political orientation, which is as against the grain for a Hollywood movie of this era as Chayefsky’s was among his colleagues. This is the man who sounded dubious about working on Warren Beatty’s Reds for the simple reason that its protagonist, Communist journalist John Reed, “had given his life for an inherently flawed and ultimately wrongheaded movement.” According to Itzkoff, to Chayefsky, the values of his son’s generation — that is, those who came of age in the 1960s — “were a mystery.” This is manifested in Network’s devastating portrayal of the hilariously named Ecumenical Liberation Army. They are a revolutionary gang handpicked by UBS to star in The Mao Tse-Tung Hour, but as witty as this scenario is, for ever-serious, ever-angry Chayefsky, Itzkoff writes, “there was no discernible difference . . . between an organization such as Students for a Democratic Society and a group such as the Symbionese Liberation Army. Whatever their stated goals, all that interested these groups was the destabilization of the country, the sowing of discord, and the spreading of violence.”

In the end, more than Network’s oft-mentioned prescience, it is Chayefsky’s despairing view of the media recklessly hitching their wagon to “anti-establishment” or “counterculture” forces that surprises — and delights.

– Mr. Tonguette’s criticism has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, and elsewhere. He is writing a book on Peter Bogdanovich.

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