The Film ‘Network’ Darkly Predicted Our Paranoid Politics

Sidney Lumet’s award-winning satire exposed the media’s attitude of ‘anything for ratings’

The Film ‘Network’ Darkly Predicted Our Paranoid Politics
British-born actor Peter Finch raises his arms and stands in front of a stained glass window in a still from the film, ‘Network’, directed by Sydney Lumet, 1976 / MGM Studios / Courtesy of Getty Images

Jack Shaheen’s 2009 book “Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People” amounts to a 600-page blacklist of lampoons, insults or distortions of Arabs in movies. Many titles on the list belong there. Most aren’t exactly shrines to great cinema: “The Lady of the Harem” (1926); “Tarzan and the Leopard Woman” (1946); “Kiss the Other Sheik” (1968); “The Happy Hooker Goes to Washington” (1977); “Bloodsucking Pharaohs in Pittsburgh” (1991). Such B movies use caricature as their stock-in-trade, making us wonder if anyone, Arabs or no, comes off “looking real.” Less easily dismissed are the serious films, like “The Black Stallion” and “Back to the Future,” which disappoint when it comes to portraying Arabs.

One of those serious films is “Network” (1976), written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Sidney Lumet, who also gave us “12 Angry Men” and “Dog Day Afternoon.” “Network” was flagged by Shaheen for anti-Arab feeling and condemned to the “Worst List,” namely Shaheen’s gallery of the grossest offenders in terms of how they portray Arabs. But as I read Shaheen’s account, my Spidey sense began to tingle. “Network” won four Academy Awards and ranked 64th on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 greatest American movies. Film critics will criticize, but they won’t bless a movie that contains honest-to-God burlesques of brown people, not if those critics think it will cost their jobs. We may doubt whether Hollywood will stand on principle, but we can bet they’ll do the right thing if it saves the bottom line.

And what’s more, I thought, if this flick is any good, then it can’t just be pulp fiction. Great art is self-aware. Simply mentioning stereotypes doesn’t mean approving them. Retweets don’t equal endorsement. Parodies are often used ironically to make a larger point, for instance, or to show how a narrator can’t be trusted.

I decided to check out “Network” for myself. And I’m glad I did.

The film brilliantly satirizes the TV industry in the context of the turbulent 1970s — Vietnam, inflation, the oil crisis, Watergate, airplane hijackings, militant leftism. A failing nightly news show exploits its washed-up anchor’s threats of suicide by rebranding him as a network sensation, a “mad prophet of the airwaves” who speaks truth to power. But the “truth” is much darker: feeding people’s outrage in fact serves corporate greed, the new “evangel gospel” that structures the world instead of nations or races.

The film’s lesson for our time, often linked in terms of bitter polarization to the 1970s, couldn’t be clearer. No longer TV conglomerates but rather tech giants traffic in scandal with clicks and retweets. Politicians and TikTok influencers provoke fear and anger, overloading databases to the point where no one knows what’s real. In the words of Howard Beale, the disgraced anchor-prophet of “Network” and masterfully played by Peter Finch, “When the 12th-largest company in the world controls the most awesome goddamned propaganda force in the whole godless world, who knows what shit will be peddled for truth on this network?” Who indeed.

It’s been a rough go for Howard. Once the crowned head of nightly news, he can’t shake his awful ratings, which salt the emotional scars of his wife’s death. He drinks heavily and broods to anybody who’ll listen. One night he and his boss, Union Broadcasting System (UBS) news division president Max Schumacher (William Holden), get “properly pissed.” Howard reveals his plan: “I’m going to blow my brains out right on the air, right in the middle of the 7 o’clock news.”

“You’ll get a hell of a rating, I can guarantee you that,” Max says.

This is the film’s premise. It gives literal meaning to the old journalist’s daffodil, “If it bleeds, it leads.” Max jokes about doing a full-on series, “ ‘Suicide of the Week’ — No, why limit ourselves? ‘Execution of the Week.’ ” But he eats his words when Howard mounts the news desk and tells viewers he’ll kill himself on live TV the next week. Max tries to save face by letting Howard apologize on air. But instead, Howard rants to the camera, complaining about how “life is bullshit.” Max lets it play out with a sigh: “If this is how he wants to go out, this is how he goes out.”

But to Max’s surprise — which is paradoxical given how long he has worked in TV; maybe it’s more to his chagrin — the ratings jump like a cottontail. Phone calls flood the control booth. Reporters throng the building. Howard hasn’t pushed away viewers like Max thought. Instead, he has tapped their ugliest fears, opening a dump valve on the churning, boiling rage of 1970s America, with its summer-of-love hangover, soaring inflation and a war in Asia that has gone on too long. The network executives, noses trained on the first whiff of blood, tell Max to capitalize on his old friend’s paranoia, surfing the wave of publicity to salvage the show and the entire network.

Enter the seductive but ruthless network climber Diana Christensen, played by Faye Dunaway. Diana is vice president of programming and she’s desperate for a hit. She wants to get it by stoking outrage. “I’ve been telling you people since I took this job six months ago that I want angry shows,” she says in a staff meeting. She sees her chance in Howard, who, backed by Diana’s boss, Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall), becomes a “mad prophet,” drenched in anger and falling into sudden trances. But Howard isn’t Diana’s only project. She discovers raw footage of a bank robbery by the Ecumenical Liberation Army (ELA), a fictional group based on the Symbionese Liberation Army that kidnapped Patty Hearst, and builds it into a weekly show called “The Mao Tse-Tung Hour” featuring real heists, kidnapings and hijackings. She and Max, a man married for 25 years with grown children, also start an affair.

Howard’s ratings dip again. Max wants the old, sober format back, but Howard scales the podium and electrifies a second time, giving network brass good reason to proceed. Diana goes behind Max’s back and turns the show into what we now call infotainment: “The Network News Hour,” with sidekicks like Sybil the Soothsayer, who predicts the news, and Howard as the “Mad Prophet of the Airwaves” — he even preaches in front of a stained-glass church. Meanwhile, Diana cuts a deal with the ELA militants to create “The Mao Tse-Tung Hour,” which stuns in its first season.

Max and Diana continue their affair, but Max knows it can’t last, just like Howard’s stardom. Howard’s on-air rants strike a nerve when he blasts UBS’s parent company, the Communications Corporation of America (CCA), for selling out to a Saudi conglomerate (hence Shaheen’s charges of anti-Arab sentiment). The CEO tells Howard to toe the corporate line even as Howard’s depressing outbursts sink the ratings and force the network’s hand, leading to a dark but fitting conclusion.

“Network” opened to mixed reviews. Richard Eder, writing in The New York Times, called it a “foolish film” with “cardboard ducks” for characters. Tom Shales reported in The Washington Post that Paul Friedman, then the producer of NBC’s “Today Show,” called “Network” “outrageous and heavy-handed.” Maybe these critics were comparing the film to “12 Angry Men,” Lumet’s golden debut in 1957 after a decade of TV directing, or to “Serpico,” the 1973 crime drama starring Al Pacino that clinched Lumet’s legacy as one of the greatest directors of his generation.

By contrast, “Network” does seem uneven and preachy. It never explains why Howard has his “visions” or how network executives know to tap their effects. It misses the immediacy of 1950s movies about television, like Elia Kazan’s “A Face in the Crowd,” where viewers still feel the shock of the new medium tearing up America. Some of “Network’s” visuals, like a long shot of Max and Diana talking on the street, obscured by passing cars, can feel awkward and unplanned.

But even Homer nods occasionally. The real power of “Network” is its foresight, a delicious irony given its focus on “a latter-day prophet denouncing the hypocrisies of our time.” People have attacked show business for its shallow pandering ever since Plato banned poets from his ideal city. But “Network” reaches a new level, not least because of the rich food for criticism plated up by TV.

In a now-iconic scene, plopped masterfully by Lumet at the film’s exact midpoint, Howard has his first vision at home in the middle of the night, then goes on air and speaks of a voice commanding him to “tell the truth.” Working himself into a craze, one by one Howard names the social and economic ills plaguing America — crime, poverty, inflation, food shortages — then tells viewers, “I don’t want you to protest. I don’t want you to riot. I don’t want you to write your congressman. … 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!’ ”

Cue pandemonium. A montage of heads thrusting like whack-a-mole from apartment windows, yelling at baffled pedestrians below. Reports of bedlam across the country. Spiked ratings and swollen pocketbooks. The business of the media is outrage — and business is booming. But Lumet isn’t just prosecuting the media, though that would be enough for praise. He’s also taking a snapshot, however embellished, of 1970s America.

At that time people worried about lack of jobs, inflation and a string of energy crises. They argued about the legacy of the civil rights movement, with some pushing for more freedoms and others fearing threadbare morals. Conservatives reacted to 1960s counterculture by sweeping Richard Nixon to power in 1968, a year darkened by the murders of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. Nixon won again in 1972 in one of the biggest landslides in U.S. history, but soon after that the Watergate spying scandal broke. Dozens of shootings and airplane hijackings by the Black Liberation Army, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and other revolutionaries transfixed the world. Antiwar protests fumed as U.S. involvement in Vietnam stretched into 1973 despite promises to leave.

All this tumult and anxiety throb at the heart of “Network.” As someone born after the ’70s, I was dumbfounded by how loudly it still echoes. Despite, statistically at least, having a stronger economy and safer society than has been the case in decades — though with uneven results for many, it must be said — today’s Americans still doubt politicians, the media and one another more than ever. The last time they felt so divided was, well, the 1970s. No wonder people compare those years to now. Maybe that’s why some critics slammed “Network” after its release: They lacked the time and distance needed to see the same grisly paranoia come back and dull the American spirit once again.

There’s a lesson here about media literacy too. Early in the film, Diana tells her subordinates about a concept report that takes the nation’s pulse. “The American people are turning sullen. They’ve been clobbered on all sides by Vietnam, Watergate, the inflation, the depression; they’ve turned off, shot up, and they’ve fucked themselves limp, and nothing helps. So, this concept analysis report concludes, the American people want somebody to articulate their rage for them.”

Rage, rage and more rage. I couldn’t help but hear in Diana’s voice the reverb of today’s media blaming former president Donald Trump’s rise to power on white rage, or excusing Black Lives Matter and Antifa violence in the name of Black rage, or dismissing #MeToo as women’s rage. In so many words, Diana looks at the rage of her own time and does what we now call data-driven decision making. She applies the laser-exact science of marketing to target our brains, our guts, and our genitals, all with the instincts and desires that keep us coming back. “The key to business,” says New York University professor Scott Galloway, “is tapping into the irrational organs.” And Diana does it brilliantly.

Today’s viewers, nourished on the caped and spandexed athletes who pass for actors, or else on the faceless voice-overs in animated films, may not know what to do with proper performances like those in “Network.” The film picked up three of four acting awards at the 49th Oscars, including Finch for Best Actor. (His was the first posthumous Academy Award — Finch died of a heart attack at age 60 in January 1977.) His trancelike scowls can seem forced, it’s true, but his woebegone puppy dog blends superbly into outrage and even terror, as much a terror of his own shadow as of the crumbling world around him. Holden is world-weary as Max, delivering wisdom from his view on the way out to those just stepping in.

My favorite performance is by Dunaway as Diana. In the words of Max, she is “television incarnate: 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.” Magnetic, pushy, highly sexed, sharp and steely as a cutlass, Diana pulls everyone around her into the frenzy of showbiz. She can’t stop talking about work, even while making love to Max — in fact, talking about work turns her on even more. She is Sheryl Sandberg-style feminism gone over a cliff.

Opposite Diana is Max’s wife, Louise, played by Beatrice Straight, who won Best Supporting Actress for five minutes of screen time, the shortest performance ever to win an acting Oscar. Rather than leave Max when she discovers the affair, Louise says, “I’m not going to give you up that easily.” A modern viewer could mistake this for codependency, but there’s more at play here. Louise is no shrinking violet. When Max reveals his relationship with Diana, Louise demands “respect and allegiance,” if not romance and passion, for the years spent building a home and raising a family. When Max can’t give it to her, she tosses him out like old rubbish.

What does all this have to do with Arabs? Why did Shaheen put “Network” in his “Reel bad Arabs” penalty box? Two-thirds of the way into the film, Howard rants about a corporate buyout of the CCA by the Western World Funding Corp., a front for Saudi billionaires. “They’re buying it for the Arabs,” he says. “We all know the Arabs control $16 billion in this country. They own a chunk of Fifth Avenue, 20 downtown pieces of Boston, a part of the Port of New Orleans, an industrial park in Salt Lake City. … Hell, they already own half of England! The Arabs are simply buying us!”

This should rightly disgust us for playing into the Arab typecast of “billionaires, bombers and belly dancers.” That is, if Howard’s opinion equals that of the film’s creators — but it doesn’t. First, recall that Howard’s show feeds on outrage, a point condemned over and over by “Network.” In the 1970s, Americans were outraged by the 1973 oil embargo, passed by members of OPEC against the United States and others for backing Israel in the Yom Kippur War. One sees the American standpoint in political cartoons like one with an Arab leader aiming a gas pump like a gun at U.S. leaders.

In the film, UBS takes this sense of wounded pride and cashes it at the bank. Real life is no different. Pundits and politicos find who or what the public blames for its troubles — war, low wages, high prices, immigration — and turn that thing into a bogeyman. In our own time, the Biden administration blames rising gas costs on “Putin’s price hike” from the Russian war on Ukraine. One imagines Howard chuckling to himself.

Second, there’s the framing of the scene. Howard’s rant is shot on a TV set that broadcasts the show, rather than being shown from the studio as in other scenes. Here Lumet calls Howard’s credibility into question by visually putting him at two degrees’ remove. It’s a technique that echoes the movie’s opening and closing shots, with a bank of screens airing multiple shows at once, including Howard’s. In this way, the film makes viewers uneasy about trusting Howard, including his harangue against the Saudis, as he dances over the line between prophet and paranoiac. In fact his volatility is the whole reason he’s kept on the air in the first place. “For God’s sake Diana,” says UBS executive Frank, “we’re talking about putting a manifestly irresponsible man on national television.”

But above all, Howard’s tirade against the Saudis brings down the thunder of the head of CCA, Arthur Jensen, played by Ned Beatty, and with it the point of the film. “You are an old man,” he shouts at Howard, “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, reichsmarks, rins, rubles, pounds and shekels. … The world is a business, Mr. Beale. It has been since man crawled out of slime.”

Here is the film’s main argument. Global capital incriminates one and all in “Network,” even the hard-bitten communist revolutionaries. During the scene where the ELA negotiates the terms of the “The Mao Tse-Tung Hour,” ruthless warlord Ahmad Khan (Arthur Burghardt) pulls out his pistol and fires a warning shot, then with absurd incongruity turns to the contract and says, like a clipped and polished corporate attorney, “Let’s get back to page 22, point 5, small (a): subsidiary rights.” This is Tom Wolfe’s “radical chic” in a nutshell: the idea that upper-class people join social causes only because it’s trendy.

Even prophecy itself, distilled in the person of Howard, is a servant to the greenback. Or, to put it another way, all of finance is soothsaying. Market research and polling data are just a giant crystal ball. This recalls Alan Jay Levinovitz’s comparison of economists to ancient Chinese astrologers, who fetishize mathematical models to turn their craft into a highly paid pseudoscience. In “Network,” early in the development of Howard’s show, Diana asks Max, “Did you know there are a number of psychics working as licensed brokers on Wall Street? Some of them counsel their clients by use of tarot cards. They’re all pretty successful, even in a bear market and selling short.”

It’s telling apart the brokers from the psychics that’s the real magic trick.

As noted, readers will see the irony in a movie that, with its media oracle Howard phoning ahead to the future, critics have called one of modern cinema’s greatest weather forecasts. Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin wrote that “no predictor of the future, not even Orwell, has ever been as right as Chayefsky was when he wrote ‘Network.’ ”

I couldn’t shake this same feeling when I saw the film, before returning to watch the internet’s “person of the day” — some poor sap who everyone is talking about on Twitter for 24 hours — get sucked into a raging tweet storm. Ironic indeed.

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