Open Mic

Still Mad as Hell: Why the Movie 'Network' Still Resonates Today--And What It Says About Charlie Sheen

Chuck Ross Posted February 16, 2011 at 8:27 AM

It’s been 35 years since Howard Beale, in one of the most famous scenes in the history of movies, instructed us to shout out of our windows, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!”

Yet it was only a few weeks ago that Keith Olbermann, in his exit speech on his last show on MSNBC, referenced that scene. Most of us would be hard-pressed to remember any lines from a movie we saw this past weekend, let alone having one still resonate 35 years later.

The Howard Beale scene is from the 1976 movie “Network,” and with its debut on Blu-ray this week I took another look at it. The movie was both a critical and a popular hit upon its release.

One of the first things that strikes you about the movie is the opening credits. The main stars are listed, then the title of the movie and then the credit “By Paddy Chayefsky.” Very few writers have had the clout to receive a movie credit so high up in the credits. But it’s what Chayefsky demanded--and deserved.

Chayefsky, one of the most famous writers from the early days of TV, when the medium was mostly live, won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay three times: For the 1955 movie version of “Marty” (adapting his own Emmy-winning TV production for the big screen), for the 1971 movie “The Hospital,” and for “Network.”

“Network” tells the story of Howard Beale (Peter Finch), the primary news anchor at the fictional TV network UBS, which competes with ABC, CBS and NBC. (Fox did not exist at the time.) Near the top of the movie Beale, who has been told that he’s been fired because of low ratings and will be leaving the network soon, announces, on-air, that in the next week he will commit suicide during his nightly national newscast.

From there the movie continues as a thrilling, rollicking, funny-as-all-get-out, spot-on satire of the business of TV, from the conflicts between news and entertainment, and those who work in each, to who owns the networks, to the mantra of “ratings, ratings, ratings,” and where that can lead.

When the movie was first released, many in Hollywood TV circles were not pleased. Wrote Time magazine: “In Los Angeles, network executives watching a screening of the movie were on the edge of their seats, almost clawing at the armrests with indignation. In New York City, the film was a three-martini lunch topic along Sixth Avenue--'Network Row'--and NBC angrily barred ['Network'] director Sidney Lumet from a screening of one of its own TV movies. 'It's a piece of crap,' huffed an NBC vice president. 'It had nothing to do with our business.' ABC's Barbara Walters was more delicate. She said that while the movie was entertaining, she was afraid audiences would think the movie was not satire but the truth.”

Chayefsky--who died of cancer at age 58 five years after “Network” was released--maintained that while yes, the film was a satire, one of the points is that it was also indeed the truth.

A wonderful extra included in the Blu-ray release is a rare TV appearance by Chayefsky on Dinah Shore’s daytime talk show on March 2, 1977, promoting “Network.”

Shore asked him, “Most of the people who maintain that ‘Network’ is a brutal attack on television are only looking at the tip of the iceberg, aren’t they really?”

Chayefsky replied, “It’s not a brutal attack at all. It’s a satire about television. It’s a very funny picture. ... It’s not a brutal attack--it’s murderous, but not brutal.”

He continued by insisting that what’s in “Network” is “true. If anybody tells you it’s not true, it’s true. Every bit of it is true. That’s what [some inside the TV business] say--they say it isn’t true--it is true.”

Then Chayefsky made the point that ratings are money, and that the TV business is a multimillion-dollar business. “Right now it’s an industry dedicated to one thing. Profit. And the only responsibility [the networks] have is to their stockholders. And that, I think, is worth knowing. That what you see on television is getting money for the network.”

He added, “If you follow the desire to make profit, which is the desire to get a better rating than the network opposite you--to get a bigger share, which means you then charge a hell of a lot more for your commercial moments, I tell you we will pursue this right into Colosseum ’77. We will throw the Christians to the lions every Saturday night, believe me.

“This is what the picture, essentially, was about. When do we say hold it, human life is a hell of a lot more important than your lousy dollar?”

To Time magazine Chayefsky expanded on his point: “Television coarsens all the complexities of human relationships, brutalizes them, makes them insensitive. The point about violence is not so much that it breeds violence--though that is probably true--but that it totally desensitizes viciousness, brutality, murder, death so that we no longer actively feel the pains of the victim or suffer for the mourners or feel their grief.

“When the [dirigible] Hindenburg blew up, the reporter [witnessing it live] broke down on the radio [as he described it]. I can't imagine anything like that happening today. I imagine a detached, calm description of the ship going up in flames: ‘I do believe there will be no survivors.’ We have become desensitized to things that are usually part of the human condition. This is the basic problem of television. We've lost our sense of shock, our sense of humanity.”

Talking about some of the events Chayefsky created in “Network,” TV producer George Schlatter, in another article, told Time magazine when the film came out, "People say there will never be such a show business approach to the news. But think back to the Symbionese Liberation Army shootout in Los Angeles, where there was live camera coverage and a carnival atmosphere as a group of people were burning to death. Try to separate show business from broadcast journalism in that instance."

The Time article continues, “In a macabre underlining of Schlatter's words, TV newsmen were already begging Utah prison officials last week to be allowed to film the execution of convicted killer Gary Gilmore. If prison authorities refuse, said a Salt Lake City TV man, seemingly desperate for blood, ‘We are considering using paragliders, long lenses, helicopters--maybe even a dirigible.’ ”

Though we have yet to televise executions of any type with regularity on TV, reality TV has become a staple.

But what I find even more interesting in Chayefsky’s concept of “anything for ratings” is some of the other recent scenarios we’ve seen.

For example the entire Conan/Leno debacle at NBC was born of this. It all came about because NBC decided it had to keep both Conan AND Leno--that’s the reason it promised Conan “The Tonight Show” in the first place: the fear of the damage Conan could have done to NBC’s ratings if he had left at that time back in 2004 or so and competed against them.

Or take what’s going on with Charlie Sheen and “Two and a Half Men.” Because of the fact information travels virtually instantaneously today, we learn the minute details of Sheen’s off-air destructive and self-destructive behavior seemingly the minute after he engages in these behaviors. Clearly it’s not a healthy situation for Sheen, and often, for those around him.

And is there anyone among us who would be truly surprised if the next tweet we receive is that Sheen has overdosed or for some other reason due to his excesses, has died? Or that someone close to him or part of his entourage at the time has died?

Yet he’s the highest-paid actor on TV, on a popular sitcom whose ratings seem to have no limits, so who at CBS or Warner Bros. would have the guts to say "no more."

What’s that again, Paddy? You say this is the basic problem of television? That we’ve lost our sense of shock, our humanity?

Watch “Network” again--or for the first time--and see if you don’t find some tears welling up behind your laughter.

Because, as Paddy said, the movie was, is, and will forever be about “when do we say hold it, human life is a hell of a lot more important than your lousy dollar?”#