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What Were the '70s Trying to Tell Us? Week 1 - Network (1976)

For awhile, it looked like the storm that precipitated Howard Beale’s “I’m as mad as hell” rant would return for our showing of Network (1976) last night at the Severna Park Library. The power did go out briefly more than an hour before the screening, but thankfully we didn’t have to wait very long before things returned to normal. Of course, nothing is normal when you’re watching Network (or is it?). At least we didn’t have any members of the Ecumenical Liberation Army in the audience (as far as I know).

What we did have was a very respectable turnout, considering the weather, and good popcorn, which can get you through most anything. About half of the audience had never seen the film before and were probably wondering why I chose this title to kick off my “What Were the ‘70s Trying to Tell Us?” series at the library: five films that cover topics that I believe are more relevant in 2019 than they were when these films first opened.


It was the 1970s. We’d survived the turbulent ‘60s, but the Vietnam War still took up half the decade, so we literally weren’t out of the woods yet. We’d been lied to, crime and domestic terrorism were rampant, prices were going up, the economy was terrible, and we generally felt weak and vulnerable. As the country changed, so did the movies, exploring issues and topics that were socially conscious and often controversial. It was a time of cynicism, realism, and experimentation in the movies, often replacing heroes with anti-heroes. It was sometimes hard to identify the “good” guy (if there was one), and even when you could, there was no guarantee he was going to win.

Then along comes Network, a film that satirized something that really hadn’t taken off yet, not like it would in the coming years and decades: reality TV. When screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky and director Sidney Lumet gave us the film in 1976, it was a satire. Today it’s a documentary.

Our news has become entertainment. Our government, our politics, our next-door neighbors, and ourselves - all of it and their accompanying shenanigans, thanks to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and the rest of the internet, are all reality TV.

After the film, we discussed how accurately Network predicted where we and television (and the internet) now are. Lumet and Chayefsky both got their start in the early days of television and considered Network to be more-or-less straight reporting, not satire. I mentioned that Lumet, on the film’s DVD commentary, concluded with these words: “The end of the movie is fantasy, only because it hasn’t happened yet. One day there’ll be a real death on a show. I promise you.”

As one member of last night’s audience pointed out, it’s already happened: Christine Chubbuck, news anchor for WXLT-TV in Sarasota, Florida, committed suicide on the air on July 15, 1974. (Although this event predates Network, there’s no evidence that the producers based the film on Chubbuck’s story.) There have been others.

I mentioned last night that the film contains at least three brilliant moments: Mr. Jensen’s (Ned Beatty) speech to Howard Beale in a closed board room;

Beatrice Straight’s amazing performance that, despite taking only about five minutes of screen time, earned her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar; and Peter Finch’s Oscar-winning performance as Howard Beale, especially during the “Mad as hell” speech.

Yet I replayed one scene that’s not as bombastic as that moment, but quietly shows off Finch’s brilliance. If you have the DVD or Blu-ray, it occurs at about the 45:00 mark. Just watch Finch’s eyes and eyebrows as he speaks to Max (William Holden) about the revelation he had the night before. Beale is a madman, but watch how Finch plays it: not as a raging madman (not just yet), but as a pathetic character who genuinely believes what he’s saying. If you don’t believe him, you at least want to believe him.

One woman in the audience commented that she’d never been a fan of Faye Dunaway (who also won an Oscar for the film), but admitted that her performance in Network is absolutely brilliant. In fact, the audience was amazed that the over-the-top moments weren’t so over-the-top that they diminished the drama of the film. It’s a fine balance and difficult to pull off. It’s no accident that Chayefsky’s Oscar-winning script for Network is often cited as one of the greatest screenplays of the 20th century.

One gentleman in the audience loved the movie, but expressed his frustration about our current choices of news sources. He said, (and I paraphrase) “We only had three channels back then, and the quality of the news reporting kept getting worse. Now we have hundreds of channels and things aren’t any better.” Later this same gentleman expressed further frustration with people who read and watch only the news reports that will cater to their own rigidly-held political views. “I don’t know how we change this,” he said.

Another gentleman said, “I know what I’m going to do. When I get home, I’m going to open my window, stick my head out, and yell, “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” The audience roared with laughter and I asked, “Okay, who’s going to join this guy tonight?” (Quite a few hands went up, by the way.)

It was also interesting to hear from so many people who had watched the film when it premiered in 1976 and saw it then as nothing more than a satirical comedy, yet now see it as a terrifying condemnation of our current culture.

As I’ve mentioned many times before, these after-movie conversations are always amazing and enlightening. I never know what the audiences are going to bring to the table, but their comments (only some of which I’ve just shared with you) are always illuminating and thought-provoking.

If you live anywhere in the Baltimore/Washington area, I hope you’ll join us for the other films in this series (Blue Collar is next on Thursday, May 9) and afterward on the first Thursday of the month. If we’re too far away, please consider asking your local library if they can show movies and hold discussions afterward. Just in the past month, two people have contacted me about how they can get something like this started. I’m glad to help, so if you’re interested, please get in touch with me. We need more good movies screened everywhere, but we also need more people talking about them afterward, engaging and sharing. Thanks for reading. I hope we’ll see you sometime.

Photos: MGM/UA, IMDb, TCM, Hollywood Reporter, Old Movies are Great, Screenmusings, Salon

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