“I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this any more!”

This is the immortal refrain yelled by anchorman Howard Beale in the 1976 film Network. It seems that the film, 40 years on from its UK release, has just as much to say about the state of the world today than it did back then.

Peter Finch as Howard Beale in Network

Beale, played by Peter Finch in an Oscar-winning role, is a newscaster who decides to commit suicide live on air after hearing his show will be cancelled due to declining ratings. Instead, he launches into a rant about the state of the nation and the “bullshit” of modern American life. He’s having a breakdown, live on air, and the ratings go through the roof. He manages to galvanise the American people into screaming his words from their windows: “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this any more!”

Beale’s speech, which lasts about two minutes, is weirdly prescient to the world we live in today.

We know the air is unfit to breathe and our food is unfit to eat, and we sit watching our TVs while some local newscaster tells us that today we had 15 homicides and 63 violent crimes, as if that’s the way it’s supposed to be.
We know things are bad — worse than bad. They’re crazy. It’s like everything everywhere is going crazy, so we don’t go out anymore. We sit in the house, and slowly the world we are living in is getting smaller, and all we say is: ‘Please, at least leave us alone in our living rooms. Let me have my toaster and my TV and my steel-belted radials and I won’t say anything. Just leave us alone.’
Well, I’m not gonna leave you alone. I want you to get mad!

The full speech is worth a watch: Beale goes on to talk about “the depression and the inflation and the Russians and the crime in the street”, among other things which could easily have been written at almost any time in the past few years.

Howard Beale (Peter Finch) with the monologue that makes him famous.

But the film is also about how this man is treated by the media in America. Instead of getting him the help he needs, the network hands the running Beale’s show to Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway, who also won an Oscar for her role). She has nothing to do with news — she’s the head of entertainment. But she sees an opportunity for huge ratings.

And so this is what happens to the man who was about to commit suicide on air. He’s exploited by the media company he works for, and goes from being a serious newscaster to a reality TV star. He becomes the “mad prophet of the airwaves”. Week after week, he rants in front of a live audience on the state of the world, on capitalism, individualism, corporate greed. He and his audience always end the show with his original chorus, now just a catchphrase: “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this any more!”

That is, until Beale becomes a threat to the company he works for. The network’s parent company is to be bought out by a Saudi Arabian conglomerate, which Beale riles against on air. He is reprimanded by the chair of the parent company (Ned Beatty) and forced to change his message: he now must preach the evangel of the value of corporations, and the power of money over nations. When Beale asks why he is chosen to be the messenger of this new missive, the executive utters the line: “Because you’re on television, dummy. Sixty million people watch you every night of the week”.

I don’t really have to spell out the parallels between Paddy Chayefsky’s 40-year-old script and today’s reality. (Chayefsky won an Oscar for his screenplay.) Exploiting borderline-mentally-ill people for ratings happens all over our screens these days. The line between news and entertainment has been blurred for a while now. Beale’s populist anger resonates with audiences in the film, as it would in real life now. As the screenwriter Aaron Sorkin told the New York Times in 2011, “no predictor of the future — not even Orwell — has ever been as right as Chayefsky was when he wrote Network.”

The film is a satire (although any hint of comedy is blacker than black), which is why the ending works. Without giving away spoilers, it’s grizzly, cynical and somewhat inevitable once you realise the corporate executives’ ceaseless quest for the revolution to be televised.

Is it a coincidence that the true story of Christine Chubbuck, the Florida newscaster who did shoot herself live on air in 1974, has been made into two films recently? (One is a documentary while the other is a biopic.) Chubbuck suffered from depression, and (in the recent film Christine at least) worries about getting high ratings. Whether or not Chayefsky was inspired by the Chubbuck suicide is up for debate, but if he had the idea for Network independent of the real events in Florida, he did have an eerily clairvoyant view of the way the news media was going.

As today marks the 40th anniversary of the UK release of Network, it really is worth a watch (it’s on Netflix in the UK). The film could have been made in 2017, and be just as relevant. The only difference is that now, Howard Beale would have just as much chance of being behind the desk in the Oval Office as he would in a TV studio.

MGM/Netflix

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