The unflinching conviction of Paddy Chayefsky’s ideas displayed in Network (1976) won him an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay and indignation from the television and news-broadcasting world. In the aftermath of the film’s release, he even felt compelled to write a clarifying letter of apology to CBS news anchor, Walter Cronkite.
Chayefsky’s script originally intended to attack television, believing it to be “doomed” and “stupid”. To him, the motivation of networks was to boost ratings and to manipulate people’s thoughts for the benefit of the corporations that own them.
In Network, this entails the debasement of news and informative programming into the realm of fiction and hyperbole, where reality is tinkered with and real life tragedies are exploited. The misery of the human individual at the heart of the subject matter is lost in the media circus.
TV is showbiz, Max, and even the news has to have a little showmanship.
The attention focused on television, naturally shifted, in Chayefsky’s own words, to “our whole society and its fabric”. He believed American people felt increasingly angry and powerless with the times they lived in. This is something he wanted to articulate without compromise. Network was a story that had to be told.
A script with a tenacious and purposeful message should not waste its opportunity to make a real social impact. The writer must not take a lackadaisical approach to research. To imbue Network with the caustic conviction it required, Chayefsky embarked on patient and rigorous preparation.
For the fictional UBS network, he created a 23-man corporate structure and a weekly programming schedule, filled with shows parodying the material television networks were producing at the time. Although critics generally praised the film, there were plot elements that they deemed implausible. However, Chayefsky was simply plucking the absurd from reality.
For example, Howard Beale’s (Peter Finch) on-air declaration that he is going to commit suicide on his next news broadcast was influenced by the case of Christine Chubbuck. The bank robberies committed by the Ecumenical Liberation Army were inspired by the real-life exploits of the SymbioneseLiberation Army. And if anyone thought that The Howard Beale Show was a stretch for the imagination, Network was most prescient in foreshadowing public figures such as Glenn Beck.
Chayefsky built formidable and fiercely intelligent antagonists to ensure he would have to fight to make his point. An exchange between UBS’ President of the News Division, Max Schumacher (William Holden), and Senior Executive Vice President, Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall), demonstrates the weakness of the individual when facing the multifarious corporate machine.
I'll put him in a hospital before I let you exploit him like a carnival freak.
You get your psychiatrists, and I'll get mine.
I'm going to spread this whole reeking business in every paper and on every network, independent, group, and affiliated station in this country. I'm going to make a lot of noise about this.
Great! We need all the press we can get.
A plethora of entrancing speeches are peppered throughout Network. Chayefsky created shrewdly intelligent characters who knew everything about themselves. They were endowed with the ability to powerfully vocalise their arguments, stake their claims with a blunt honesty, and consequently drive the plot forward.
Peter Finch delivers many memorable speeches in the role of Howard Beale, “the angry prophet denouncing the hypocrisies of our times.” Most notable is the "mad as hell" speech, which contributed to his Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role.
Despite each only having a total of around five minutes screen time, Beatrice Straight won an Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role and Ned Beatty was nominated for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. Chayefsky equipped both characters with monologues that ensured they stood up to be counted, as the film implores the audience to do themselves.
As time has passed, Network’s prophecies have increasingly come true: it has grown in stature and now has a voice louder than ever. The conviction of that voice was achieved through Chayefsky’s tireless deliberation on character, the statements he was making, and where exactly he wanted to direct his anger.
And through Howard Beale, Network’s recurrent outlet of anger, Chayefsky gets the chance to directly address the viewer.
Go to yourself because that's the only place you'll ever find any real truth!