Remembering Network: could we bring Chayefsky back for a sequel?


Peter Finch won an Oscar for his performance as the news anchor Howard Beale in “Network.”

Today, I read in the news that presidential candidates are hiring high-priced teams of experts to make them appear authentic.

I’ve never seen Robert Redford in 1972’s The Candidate, but perhaps we’ve bypassed the comparative innocence of that story for the nihilistic prophecy of 1976’s Network, about the media distortion of fantasy into our new “reality.” Can kids today even understand that there was a time before all this began? “Thirty-five years later, Network remains an incendiary if influential film, and its screenplay is still admired as much for its predictive accuracy as for its vehemence: a relentless sense of purpose,” wrote Dave Itzkoff in the New York Times in 2011. Film critic Devin Faraci wrote last year: “In 1976 this was broad and crazy; in 2014 it feels like the world in which we live. The big difference is that the internet has taken the place of the TV networks. Very little in Network still reads as obvious satire.”


Faye Dunaway in her Oscar-winning performance.

Aaron Sorkin cited scriptwriter Paddy Chayefsky when he accepted his Oscar for the screenplay of The Social Network, and wrote that “no predictor of the future — not even Orwell — has ever been as right as Chayefsky was when he wrote Network. ”

Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report, said that Howard Beale, the fictional news anchor who goes off his rocker, “is a precursor of people who are telling you how you feel. Not just the nighttime people that I’m sort of a parody of, not just the opinion-making people, but even what is left of straight news.” Telling you what you feel … or arranging “spontaneous” reactions, or creating authenticity with authenticity experts.

Network was the dark vision of screenwriter Chayefsky (1923-81) who won an Oscar for his searing, outraged, and excellent script. Itzkoff, a few years ago, was digging through’s his archive, acquired by the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, and said the papers “speak loudly for their absent author, documenting the angst and animus that consumed him on this highly personal project.” Network was the intelligent and witty expression of that rage, and Itzkoff described the progress of his scriptwriting, which earned him one of his several Academy Awards:


Chayefsky in the 1970s. Bettman/Corbis

Chayefsky seemed to sense an absurdist tone creeping in. “All this is Strangelove-y as hell,” he wrote. “Can we make it work?”

He was closing in on his central characters: Beale, the crumbling, suicidal anchor; Max Schumacher, the dispirited news division president; and Diana Christensen, the executive who is both Schumacher’s adversary and love interest. Yet Chayefsky appeared concerned that a thesis, any thesis, was eluding him, and his story was becoming increasingly nihilistic. … he confessed to himself, “I guess what bothers me is that the picture seems to have no ultimate statement beyond the idea that a network would kill for ratings, and even that doesn’t mesh with the love story.”

There’s even a book about Network – written a few years later by (you guessed it) Dave Itzkoff. It’s called Mad As Hell: The Making of Network And The Fateful Vision Of The Angriest Man In Movies (Macmillan). Faraci was writing on the occasion of it’s publication. “So much of Chayefsky’s vision – what made it on screen and what never made it off the page – was prophetic. He truly saw where it was all going; early chapters of the book have Chayefsky, who got his start writing for TV, raging against how that medium had become debased, stupid and pandering. Everything he says about TV – the way it flatters the viewer, the ways it stultifies and the way it overmagnifies minor things – is absolutely applicable to the age of Buzzfeed. Chayefsky saw our downward slope, the one we’re still on.”

network4Sorkin called it “a devastating media-industry critique — one whose author never saw television devolve into a vast wasteland of reality programming and political partisanship, but who after 35 years is still shouting just as loudly about the dangers of crass, pandering content.”

“If you put it in your DVD player today you’ll feel like it was written last week,” he said. “The commoditization of the news and the devaluing of truth are just a part of our way of life now. You wish Chayefsky could come back to life long enough to write The Internet.”

Everyone makes a big deal of the “I’m mad as hell” speech, but I think I like this one better:

“Television is not the truth. Television is a god-damned amusement park. Television is a circus, a carnival, a traveling troupe of acrobats, story tellers, dancers, singers, jugglers, sideshow freaks, lion tamers and football players. We’re in the boredom-killing business. … We’ll tell you any shit you want to hear. We deal in illusions, man! None of it is true! But you people sit there day after day, night after night, all ages, colors, creeds.  We’re all you know. You’re beginning to believe the illusions we’re spinning here. You’re beginning to think that the tube is reality and that your own lives are unreal. You do whatever the Tube tells you. You dress like the Tube. You eat like the Tube. You raise your children like the Tube. You even think like the Tube. This is mass madness! You maniacs! In God’s name, you people are the real thing. We are the illusion! So turn off your television sets. Turn them off now. Turn them off right now. Turn them off and leave them off. Turn them off right in the middle of this sentence I’m speaking to you now. Turn them off!”

Here’s the youtube clip. Take two aspirin, and play it regularly throughout the election season.


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