Peter Finch asked all Americans to open their windows and shout, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore.” Excuse us a second…
Arthur Jensen (Ned Beatty), president of a conglomerate so vast that its name (like Tenneco) conveys no impression of its interests, projects his voice through a large, empty barrel to inform us that the human race is rapidly being replaced by humanoids. Perhaps that is why Sidney Lumet, director of Network, has encouraged his cast to perform as though everything they know about being men and women they have learned at second hand. They may not be robots, but they sure as hell are hams.
And Max Schumacher (William Holden), a TV news chief who can remember all the way back to the golden age of Ed Murrow, keeps complaining that his life is shaping up into a situation soaper. So we mustn’t complain that Paddy Chayefsky’s screenplay is a primitive handkerchief wringer that would have opened on the neighborhood circuits but for the fact of its extreme boldness. I turn, then, to that.
Part of the boldness resides in having the characters dash about shouting “fuck” and “shit” at one another as though they had coined the words. The more serious part is the film’s thesis that television is becoming a great beast, besotted by audience ratings and funded with petrodollars, that is wielding the scalpel of raw sensation to decerebrate the lot of us. The plot, as briefly as I can state it, is as follows:
When the film opens, Howard Beale (Peter Finch) has been told that he is through as anchorman of the evening news show because his rating has fallen to a point deemed unsatisfactory by Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall), hatchetman in residence for “Mr.” Jensen, whose enigmatic holding company has recently “acquired” ‘the network. That evening, Beale announces on the air that he has been fired, that life has accordingly turned to ashes on his lips and that, on camera the following night, he will blow out his brains. Having sobered up—I hate to say it, but Beale has been hitting the bottle—he expresses penitence and begs to go on one last time to apologize for his foolish flight of melodrama. It is granted, but instead of apologizing, Beale lashes out at all we hold dear in capitalist society, making liberal use of the words quoted above. Sensation! And a very high rating.
Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway), a representative of the new ruthless generation at the network, senses that the public has become an army of jackals, hungry for the bloody meat of public disaster. She demands to be given control of the news program, which she will convert into a witches’ coven, with Beale as the presiding warlock. And poor Beale, who is by now hearing voices and trotting about town in his pajamas, turns “news” into the biggest sensation on the air—an easy rival of Ms. Christensen’s other brainstorm, a series of specials in which the Ecumenical Liberation Army really shoots down bank clerks and other oppressors of the poor and underprivileged.