“I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore,” disgraced television anchor Howard Beale says in the 1976 masterpiece “Network.” If film director Sidney Lumet’s career were to be reduced to a single moment, that moment would be it.
“I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore,” disgraced television anchor Howard Beale says in the 1976 masterpiece “Network.”
If film director Sidney Lumet’s career were to be reduced to a single moment, that moment would be it.
Lumet died April 9, but his legacy lives on in a series of films that include “12 Angry Men,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Serpico” and “The Verdict.” But none were as prescient — or remain as relevant — as “Network.”
Written by Paddy Chayefsky, “Network” foretold so many aspects of our modern media landscape that it’s hard to keep track: sensational entertainment programs masquerading as news, the popularity of TV demagogues, powerful corporate interests directing news coverage and the home viewer’s seemingly bottomless appetite for so-called reality television.
Beale, played by Peter Finch, is a once-distinguished anchor whose ratings go into steep decline. The day after he learns he has just two more weeks on the show, he tells his audience that he intends to commit suicide on air.
After winning permission to go back on to make a more dignified statement, Beale instead ups the ante by saying he simply ran out of (expletive). His candor catches the attention of the ambitions head of programming Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway).
“He’s articulating the popular rage,” Diana says, urging Beale be allowed to keep his job. “I see Howard Beale as a latter-day prophet — a magnificent, messianic figure inveighing against the hypocrisies of our times.”
Her boss, played by Robert Duvall, is unconvinced: “For God’s sake, Diana, we’re talking about putting a manifestly irresponsible man on national television.”
We now have entire casts comprised of “manifestly irresponsible” people on TV: “Jersey Shore,” “Celebrity Rehab,” “Hoarders” ... the list goes on and on.
At least with the crazier celebrities (Charlie Sheen comes to mind), we can delude ourselves into thinking it’s in part an act aimed at attracting attention and advancing a career. (Whether it really is an act is likely something we’ll never know, and for ratings purposes, it is beside the point.)
But when everyday people are exhibited in our national broadband zoo, is our gawking not complicit in the course of their diseases?
When children are first confronted with the sight of people who are disabled or seriously ill, mom is quick with an admonition: “Don’t stare. It’s not polite.” Memo to television programming executives: listen to your mothers.
While much of “Network” still holds up, nothing does so quite as well as the scene in which Beale utters his famous “mad as hell” line.
He’s been wandering the streets of New York in the rain, wearing pajamas and a trench coat. He takes his seat behind the anchor desk in the middle of his regularly scheduled broadcast, and as he begins urging people to join him in being “mad as hell,” he rises and approaches the camera.
It’s a technique borrowed by modern TV people such as Jim Cramer (CNBC) and Glenn Beck (Fox News). Beck has welcomed the comparison, telling the New York Times that he identified with Beale.
Beale’s “mad as hell” line gets people going. At his urging, windows are thrown open and people begin to shout.
It’s cathartic, for a moment. Then it’s cacophonous. Soon dozens, hundreds of people are shouting, feeding each other’s rage.
Today many of us have taken our rage from television networks and our windows to social networks and comment sections on news sites.
People rage and shout. But, as in “Network,” nothing gets solved –– the people with the power to affect change don’t see it and we end up going away reminded that shouting rage, no matter how loud, is impotent rage.
Brian Mackey can be reached at email@example.com.