Revisiting Network – The Best Film of the 1970’s

“I don’t have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. It’s a depression. Everybody’s out of work or scared of losing their job. The dollar buys a nickel’s worth, banks are going bust, shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter. Punks are running wild in the street and there’s nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do, and there’s no end to it. We know the air is unfit to breathe and our food is unfit to eat, and we sit watching our TV’s while some local newscaster tells us that today we had fifteen homicides and sixty-three 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! I don’t want you to protest. I don’t want you to riot – I don’t want you to write to your congressman because I wouldn’t know what to tell you to write. I don’t know what to do about the depression and the inflation and the Russians and the crime in the street. All I know is that first you’ve got to get mad. You’ve got to say, ‘I’m a HUMAN BEING, God damn it! My life has VALUE!’ So I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window. Open it, and stick your head out, and yell, ‘I’M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I’M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!’ I want you to get up right now, sit up, go to your windows, open them and stick your head out and yell – ‘I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!’ Things have got to change. But first, you’ve gotta get mad!… You’ve got to say, ‘I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!’ Then we’ll figure out what to do about the depression and the inflation and the oil crisis. But first get up out of your chairs, open the window, stick your head out, and yell, and say it: “I’M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I’M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!” – Peter Finch as Howard Beale

The 1970’s – what is there left to say?  I mean, damn, this was it, right?  This was the defining decade for modern cinema.  In the words of Robert Duvall’s character from Network, this was the decade of “big-titted hits.”

If the 2000’s were where my generation came of age with film, the 1970’s were where my father’s generation came of age with film.  I arrived just in the nick of time to be able to claim I was born in this decade of wonder and transformation where the first generation of film school graduates took cinema by storm.

Here is where many of my favorite directors working today first made a name for themselves – visionaries like Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, Terrence Malick and Werner Herzog.  This was the decade where the prolific Woody Allen and Sidney Lumet reached their pinnacles with Manhattan and NetworkThis was where directors like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas created the “Summer Movie” and defined the shape of the modern blockbusters.  This was the decade where Jack Nicholson became an acting legend with a series of astounding and unrivaled performances in films like Chinatown, Five Easy Pieces and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  This was also a watershed decade for the Italians.  In the old country Bertolucci tested the limits of aesthetic beauty in The Conformist while Olmni tested the limits of realism in The Tree of Wooden Clogs.  And who can forget Coppola’s shaping of the Italian-American pop-culture psyche with his one-two Godfather punch.

Madmen auteurs swung high and low, plumbing the depths of creativity and depravity while redefining the outer limits of cinema.  Polanski achieved neo-noir perfection with Chinatown but also channeled the insane brutality of the Manson murders (which took away his family that never was) through Shakespeare’s most shockingly violent work, Macbeth.  Kubrick dove head-first into dystopia with A Clockwork Orange only to later reach the heights of refinement in Barry Lyndon.  Altman created his own genre with Nashville while spinning a web of hipster 1970’s madness in Three Women.  Malick swooned with equal parts grit and hazy dreams in Badlands and Days of Heaven leaving himself so dizzy he wouldn’t work again for 20 years, while Lynch (young and scarred by Philadelphia) and Bergman (growing old and scarred by his own legacy) pulled no punches and shocked us to our cores with Eraserhead (an experimental black-and-white nightmare) and Cries and Whispers (a nightmare made of the boldest colors and deepest reds).

Yes, my friends.  This was it. 

But nothing…and I say NOTHING…tops the one and only…NETWORK.  More than just a scathing satire of the television generation…more than just a foreshadowing of faux reality-based entertainment and geo-politics ruled by corporations and interests in the Middle East…Sidney Lumet’s maddeningly rewatchable and quotable masterpiece is a world-class example of the perfect screenplay (chock full of Paddy Chayefsky’s virile and blistering dialogue that reads like a modern-day Shakespeare full of soliloquies, hot air and biting observations) being handed off to the perfect director at the right time to be channeled by the perfect cast. 

“You have meddled with the primal forces of nature, Mr. Beale, and I won’t have it! Is that clear? You think you’ve merely stopped a business deal. That is not the case! The Arabs have taken billions of dollars out of this country, and now they must put it back! It is ebb and flow, tidal gravity! It is ecological balance! You are an old man who thinks in terms of nations and peoples. There are no nations. There are no peoples. There are no Russians. There are no Arabs. There are no third worlds. There is no West. There is only one holistic system of systems, one vast and immane, interwoven, interacting, multivariate, multinational dominion of dollars. Petro-dollars, electro-dollars, multi-dollars, reichmarks, rins, rubles, pounds, and shekels. It is the international system of currency which determines the totality of life on this planet. That is the natural order of things today. That is the atomic and subatomic and galactic structure of things today! And YOU have meddled with the primal forces of nature, and YOU… WILL… ATONE! Am I getting through to you, Mr. Beale? You get up on your little twenty-one inch screen and howl about America and democracy. There is no America. There is no democracy. There is only IBM, and ITT, and AT&T, and DuPont, Dow, Union Carbide, and Exxon. Those are the nations of the world today. What do you think the Russians talk about in their councils of state, Karl Marx? They get out their linear programming charts, statistical decision theories, minimax solutions, and compute the price-cost probabilities of their transactions and investments, just like we do. We no longer live in a world of nations and ideologies, Mr. Beale. The world is a college of corporations, inexorably determined by the immutable bylaws of business. The world is a business, Mr. Beale. It has been since man crawled out of the slime. And our children will live, Mr. Beale, to see that… perfect world… in which there’s no war or famine, oppression or brutality. One vast and ecumenical holding company, for whom all men will work to serve a common profit, in which all men will hold a share of stock. All necessities provided, all anxieties tranquilized, all boredom amused. And I have chosen you, Mr. Beale, to preach this evangel.” – Ned Beatty as Arthur Jensen

What Network represents in terms of the possibilities of cinema is an electrified convergence of Theater, Television and Film where one writer, one director, and multiple actors can operate at the echelon of their craft and the sum of the individual parts equals the worth of the whole.  It’s corporate…I mean cinematic…cosmology, my friends.  And just as important as that convergence, this film had guts…chutzpah.

In a decade overrun by big-titted hits, it was Network that quietly, and with an air of class, showed up with the biggest set of balls.

“It’s too late, Diana. There’s nothing left in you that I can live with. You’re one of Howard’s humanoids. If I stay with you, I’ll be destroyed. Like Howard Beale was destroyed. Like Laureen Hobbs was destroyed. Like everything you and the institution of television touch is destroyed. You’re television incarnate, Diana: Indifferent to suffering; insensitive to joy. All of life is reduced to the common rubble of banality. War, murder, death are all the same to you as bottles of beer. And the daily business of life is a corrupt comedy. You even shatter the sensations of time and space into split seconds and instant replays. You’re madness, Diana. Virulent madness. And everything you touch dies with you. But not me. Not as long as I can feel pleasure, and pain… and love. ” – William Holden as Max Schumacher to Faye Dunaway as Diana Christensen

Retrospective Written by David H. Schleicher   

Dialogue Verbatim from Paddy Chayefsky

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I can’t quite remember when I first saw Network.  Though I can vividly recall watching it on my tiny 13-inch television in my childhood bedroom when I was just an impressionable kid, I can’t pinpoint exactly when that may have been.  All I know is I loved it from the start, and my appreciation for it has only grown over the years.  It holds up time and time again.  Back in 2006 at the IMDB I attempted to review it.  Oddly I called it only the 2nd greatest satire ever (behind Dr. Strangelove) and clearly no screenplay can top the speeches found in Network, some of which I highlighted above.  While I remain adamant about how timely it still is, I cringe at the thought of anyone re-imagining  it.  It deserves to be shown and revisited just as it is…a pitch perfect time capsule of the 1970’s – the greatest decade of modern cinema. 

Here is my original spin on one of my top five favorite films of all-time:

This isn’t one of your Scripts, Diana!
10/10
Author: David H. Schleicher

Network is a blazing, ballsy, and smoothly calculated satire of all things American and Corporate as seen through the tunneled vision of mass market consumerism in the form of television. Made in 1976 with no-nonsense old-school direction from Sydney Lumet and a so-good-it’s-almost-sick script from Paddy Chayefsky, this is not only the second best film satire ever made (behind only Dr. Strangelove in my book) but also a simplistic hologram of what every great film, no matter what the genre, should be: a stone-cold acting, writing, and directing tour-de-force.

Faye Dunaway (Oscar winner) is icy perfection as the programming exec who will put anything on TV for higher ratings. Peter Finch is “mad as hell” in his Oscar-winning performance as the “mad prophet of the airways” spouting off tangents on everything from soulless consumerism to the dangers of MidEast corporate buy-outs (sadly things are still the same thirty years later). William Holden is equally good in his part as an aging and recently axed news exec looking for old-fashioned love in a crazy god-less new world. Robert Duvall (with his dreams of big-titted hits), Ned Beatty (with his forces of nature), and everyone else involved are all amazing. This is one of those films so perfectly tailored to its cast and sublimely directed that an actress (Beatrice Straight as Holden’s wife) can walk onto screen for a mere five minutes, exorcise her lines as if this is her death dirge as an artist, and walk off with an Oscar.

Then of course there is the writing. This is a film not only of great lines (like “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”) but also of grandiose, verbose, and articulate dialogue (take any of the Dunaway-Holden scenes or the Beatty/Finch showdown of apocalyptic proportions). Only Casablanca, Annie Hall and perhaps Paris, Texas can compete with Network for best film dialogue ever.

And finally, this is one of the few classics ripe (and dare I say begging) for re-imagining. In 1976 this was a hilariously dark satire joking about the worst case scenario of a new world order. Viewed today, it’s a horrifying oracle of things that came true. If ever was there a film from the past with a more urgent message, I dare you to name it.

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And now for The Top 25 Films of the 197o’s with honorable mentions:

  1. Network (1976, Sidney Lumet)
  2. Barry Lyndon (1975, Stanley Kubrick)
  3. Manhattan (1979, Woody Allen)
  4. Taxi Driver (1976, Martin Scorsese)
  5. Chinatown (1974, Roman Polanski)
  6. Five Easy Pieces (1970, Bob Rafelson)
  7. Days of Heaven (1978, Terrence Malick)
  8. The Mirror (1975, Andrei Tarkovsky)
  9. Nosferatu (1979, Werner Herzog)
  10. Three Women (1977, Robert Altman)
  11. The Tree of Wooden Clogs (1978, Ermanno Olmni)
  12. One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975, Milos Foreman)
  13. Dog Day Afternoon (1975, Sidney Lumet)
  14. Badlands (1973, Terrence Malick)
  15. Annie Hall (1977, Woody Allen)
  16. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977, Steven Spielberg)
  17. Paper Moon (1973, Peter Bogdanovich)
  18. Eraserhead (1976, David Lynch)
  19. Macbeth (1971, Roman Polanski)
  20. A Clockwork Orange (1971, Stanley Kubrick)
  21. Edvard Munch (1974, Peter Watkins)
  22. Alien (1979, Ridley Scott)
  23. The Conformist (1970, Bernardo Bertolucci)
  24. Cries and Whispers (1972, Ingmar Bergman)
  25. The Godfather & The Godfather Part Two (1972 & 1974, Francis Ford Coppola)

Honorable Mentions from the 1970’s:

  • Harold and Maude (1971, Hal Ashby)
  • Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972, Werner Herzog)
  • Solaris (1972, Andrei Tarkovsky)
  • The Exorcist (1973, William Friedkin)
  • American Graffiti (1973, George Lucas)
  • Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1974, Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam)
  • The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974, Tobe Hooper)
  • Young Frankenstein (1974, Mel Brooks)
  • Nashville (1975, Robert Altman)
  • Halloween (1978, John Carpenter)
  • Interiors (1978, Woody Allen)
  • Kramer vs. Kramer (1979, Robert Benton)
  • Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979, Terry Jones)
  • Being There (1979, Hal Ashby)
  • Tess (1979, Roman Polanski)

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The Spin’s Previous Retrospectives:

And of course, here is my My Favorite Films Archive.

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8 comments on “Revisiting Network – The Best Film of the 1970’s

  1. Great piece here David. I share your enthusiasm and high regard for Network. I don’t know if I think it’s the best movie of the 1970s, but it certainly would come close if it isn’t. You are right to highlight its perfect balance between the writing, acting, and directing. Chayefsky’s script is as close to perfect as they come and Lumet chose the perfect cast, from the big ones like Peter Finch, Faye Dunaway, and William Holden to the smaller ones like Ned Beatty, Robert Duvall, and Beatrice Straight.

    I look at those monologues and I can’t help but think how both exhilarating and terrifying it must have been as an actor after seeing that on the page. I wouldn’t even know how to begin approaching them, especially the Ned Beatty monologue. That could have gone so wrong with a lesser actor.

    As for the best of the 1970s, you have several movies I don’t like and several more I haven’t seen. I would add a couple more Altman movies like “California Split” and “The Long Goodbye.” And I’ve always loved “Mean Streets.” It was such a rich decade for movies. How thrilling it must have been for someone like Pauline Kael to be writing about movies then.

    Jason – I think it’s a testament to Lumet’s direction that the cast was able to pull off those long monologues. I thought it was important to post them word for word like that so that you could read them aloud and realize just how brilliant and complex Chayefsky’s writing was. –DHS

  2. Sam Juliano says:

    This celebration of NETWORK is inspired! Lumet’s direction and Chayevsky’s satiric script are long admired, as is the triop of lead performances. This is one of those films, where you find yourself reciting various lines from the film (“I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take it anymore!”) but it’s quite a harbinger of what has happened and is continuing to happen.

    My own favorite film for this decade is Bogdonovish’s THE LAST PICTURE SHOW (1971) but I have no issue with this choice. Terrific, passionate essay, David!

    Sam – would you believe I have never seen The Last Picture Show all the way through? I must fix that. –DHS

  3. AMENDMENT: Having just watched for the first time Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Mirror – I feel it certainly deserves a place on the list somewhere. It’s one of those films that requires multiple viewings to fully take in, so I’m not sure how high it could potentially go. It could easily be in the Top 25, maybe even Top 10 after some deeper review.

  4. DHS:

    I agree with you that Network is the most cautionary and visionary film for our times today. I think there’s a direct relationship to the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement. Here’s what I posted on my facebook page (along with the entire Finch rant and Beatty sermon):

    I’m MAD AS HELL and I’m NOT gonna take it anymore !!! MUST READ …

    This is what the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement is all about, I believe … (i.e., anger-fueled mass action as a ‘rip’ in the fabric of reality and an opening up of a new possibility …)

    Everyone needs to go back and watch NETWORK, the 1976 movie with the most brilliant screenplay in history by Paddy Chayefsky, who gave us Howard Beale, the ‘Mad Prophet of the Airwaves’ (whose role is filled currently by Dylan Ratigan on MSNBC). Here’s the original rant: (Finch’s ‘Mad as Hell’ rant)

    A second post:

    Don’t Mess with the Primal Forces of Nature

    Corporate America’s response to ‘I’m Mad as Hell …’ unfortunately, this will probably be the response to the Occupy Wall Street movement as well … (Beatty’s boardroom sermon)

    Re. Best films of the 70’s, you missed some of the best anti-war (and pro-war) movies, as well as some of the best swashbucklers of all times (my personal favorite type of movie):

    M*A*S*H
    Catch-22
    Patton
    Start the Revolution Without Me (Gene Wilder and Donald Sutherland comedy magic)
    The Wind and the Lion
    The 3 Musketeers and the 4 Musketeers (Richard Lester’s masterpieces along with my favorite
    comedy of all time, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum)
    Robin and Marian
    Jaws (a true Swashbuckler, not a horror film)
    Emperor of the North – one of Lee Marvin’s finest, most underrated performances
    10 – Dudley Moore, Blake Edwards sophisticated, edgy masterpiece
    Rooster Cogburn

    … I could go on … :)

    Randall – thanks for the great comment! I, too, see a connection to current times – when I saw a woman on Wall Street holding a sign, “I’m 87 and I’m Mad as Hell!” Network is both prescient and timeless – it’s as if “the very sensations of time and space have been shattered” by it :) –DHS

  5. The Movie Man says:

    I’m so glad to see so much love for Network, which I consider to be one of the most important films ever made. It’s just as relevant today (maybe even more relevant). I can honestly say that your review is the best I’ve ever seen on this legendary movie.

    • It eerily seems to become more relevant with each passing year, doesn’t it? I mean, isn’t YouTube and all of its channels and original programming now basically the evolution of the “reality TV” concepts this film cooked up? Chayefsky was uncannily prophetic. I still wonder, was it viewed as a comedy when it first was released? Sometimes it’s more like a horror film now. But my god, if it’s anything…it’s perfect.

      And thanks for the kind words and stopping by The Spin!

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