'Network': The angriest movie of all time

Story highlights

  • "Network" subject of new book about its making and impact
  • 1976 film was about "Mad Prophet of the Airwaves," news, ratings, money
  • Satire has proven tremendously influential, some has even come true
Paddy Chayefsky heard voices.
They were the voices of angry Americans. They were the voices of proud newsmen. They were the voices of crass corporate executives, conniving revolutionaries, wounded wives and, above all, a "mad prophet of the airwaves."
He put them together and came up with "Network."
The 1976 film, starring Peter Finch as disintegrating news anchor Howard Beale, William Holden as veteran news exec Max Schumacher, Faye Dunaway as programmer Diana Christensen and Robert Duvall as network honcho Frank Hackett, was a scathing satire on news and television in a country that the mercurial Chayefsky saw in rapid decline.
And why not? As Beale ranted in the film's most famous speech, "Everybody's out of work or scared of losing their job. The dollar buys a nickel's worth. Banks are going bust. Shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter. Punks are running wild in the street and there's nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do, and there's no end to it."
He concluded by imploring his audience to yell some of the most famous words in movie history: "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not gonna take this anymore!"
In his new book, "Mad as Hell," author and New York Times reporter Dave Itzkoff chronicles the making of the Sidney Lumet-directed film -- which won Oscars for Finch, Dunaway, supporting actress Beatrice Straight and Chayefsky -- and how it proved eerily prescient in forecasting our modern age of infotainment, reality shows, corporate takeovers and the commodification of anger.
As writer Aaron Sorkin -- who has channeled Chayefsky in characters from his series "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" and "The Newsroom" -- put it to Itzkoff, "You wish Chayefsky could come back to life long enough to write 'The Internet.' "
Itzkoff spoke to CNN about Chayefsky's personality, what journalists thought of the film and its impact on pop culture. The following is an edited and condensed version of the interview.
CNN: What did you think of the film before doing the book?
Dave Itzkoff: I appreciated the film, (but) I've learned so much more about it over the last three years and have come to appreciate it in so many more ways. But also, that period of filmmaking history is especially fascinating to me. You still have a lot of tremendously talented people working within the Hollywood system to create these really subversive films, films that have strong messages and polarizing messages. To be able to tell a tale of a movie from that period, and a story that would touch on both the history of TV, the history of film and the present history of media, all of that was irresistible for me.
CNN: It's surprising that Chayefsky, coming off an Oscar for (1971's) "The Hospital," had nothing lined up, no clamor for his services. Was it because he was a difficult man?
Itzkoff: I don't think he had burnt all of his bridges. But Chayefsky did not work with an agent or a manager, he just had a lawyer at that point, so he didn't have the kind of mechanism of people who would set up your next five gigs so you have your next 10 years planned out.
Also, he was very particular about what he would take on, and was really only looking for situations where he could exercise an unprecedented degree of control. And once you stipulate that, you're really narrowing what's available to you.
CNN: "Network" is often called a Paddy Chayefsky film but Sidney Lumet seems to have put his stamp on it.
Itzkoff: Absolutely. He entered into this knowing he was going to be a collaborator, if not a subordinate, in a way a director often is not.
By all accounts, Lumet was an easygoing and hospitable guy and really did foster a spirit of collaboration on his movies. The dynamism of all the in-studio scenes -- the Howard Beale on-camera scene -- that's all Lumet. Some of the scenes are more static, more a function of the screenplay itself -- it's hard to be truly inventive when you're basically filming a person standing and speaking. But he still finds ways.
CNN: Chayefsky was also very funny and charming. How much was he driven by his anger?
Itzkoff: Among people he worked with, (he was) very congenial and very funny, liked to crack jokes. But there was that side that wanted to be in control of things and the side that was genuinely pessimistic about the fate of humanity and the direction the country was going. There were TV appearances he would do, just kind of draining the life out of conversation.
If you look across the breadth of writing he did, going all the way back to the TV plays like "Marty," you see this recurrence of characters who are very wound up and not given opportunities to express themselves, and they get this one moment to cut loose and it all explodes out of them. I think there's a lot of him in those kinds of people.
CNN: What were some of the surprises you found?
Itzkoff: I think the whole perception that the movie was written as an act of revenge, or it was a big salvo at television because it had somehow spurned him back in the day -- I think that's pretty much disproved. When you really look at the evolution of the screenplay it's clearly not the case. He didn't know what he was going to write. He certainly couldn't have gone into it with the design of writing the specific movie that comes out at the other end.
But it's also interesting for me to see the very polarized reaction that it elicited. Certainly the news industry itself completely disowned the film, and that's what necessitates his letters of apology to (Walter) Cronkite and John Chancellor. Even among the film critics who reviewed it, there were some who were proud supporters of it, and there were some who were fiercely negatively opposed to it. You look at some of the reviews and it's one thing to say you don't particularly find the movie entertaining, but the vitriol with which people were pushing against it I find surprising. It's as if they have to defend TV from Chayefsky.
CNN: In retrospect, it's surprising the journalists who protested the film didn't see what was coming down the pike -- that news could be a profit center and, critics have charged, another form of entertainment.
Itzkoff: To give the people of that era the benefit of the doubt, there was also a feeling that, to the extent they'd helped Chayefsky conduct the research for the film, I can understand if they felt he stabbed them in the back. But I think there's truth in what you're saying. They had this kind of faith (that) their industry would preserve its own dignity out of a sense of knowing it was the right thing to do. Those firewalls between news and entertainment would always exist because news would always be run by upstanding people. Chayefsky understood it was human nature to eventually do away with that.
CNN: If you look at the history of newspapers -- in the '20s the tabloids put an electric chair victim on the front page -- it seems natural.
Itzkoff: You don't even have to reach as far back. In the '70s in the local news markets, the ones who would emerge victorious were the ones who went tabloid -- who ran with more salacious segments and drifted away from hard national or international reporting. So it was very easy to extrapolate and figure, if it's happening at the local level, why shouldn't it happen at the network level?
CNN: Your last chapter deals with the impact of the movie and the people who love it. Colbert gets it. But how about Bill O'Reilly?
Itzkoff: His reading of the film as not only an indictment of news personalities but an indictment of the audience is very perceptive and I think very true. There is that element of commentary on the viewing public -- they are in some ways at fault for being led along so easily and giving into, or going along with, whatever the person on the box tells them to do. I thought O'Reilly brought that out well.
CNN: True. There's one point in the movie when Beale's asked to go on the air and rant and Max doesn't object. They're in the game, too.
Itzkoff: One thing I've come to appreciate is there is a kind of gradual corrupting that takes place over the course of the movie. In those very opening scenes, when Holden and Finch are drunkenly sitting about the bar, there's almost this gallows humor as they laugh about the terrible things TV could turn into, and little by little it starts to come true.
There is agency in the movie. These events don't just happen by accident. People want them to occur, people allow them to occur. There's definitely plenty of blame cast around in the world of the film. We can decide for ourselves if that blame should be shared by people in the viewing audience.