Madder Than Hell: How Network Anticipated Contemporary Media

Paddy Chayefsky’s iconic 1976 movie created a template for today's era of outrage.

Photofest; Everett Collection

“Thin voices penetrated the dank rumble of the city, shouting ‘I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it any more!’ Then suddenly it began to gather, the edges of sounds and voices, until it all surged out in an indistinguishable roar of rage …”

Great stuff, don’t you think? Great writing. Dank rumble … edges of sounds and voices. The tympanum of the ear vibrates. As at the end of some mighty novel, we have a sense of the symbolic plane fully and finally accessed—of things being simultaneously what they are and more than they are. Here it comes, out of borderline scratchings of unease and preverbal dissent, streaming, converging: The Great Anger. The Day of the Boiled Frog. I wonder whether Paddy Chayefsky, drafting these lines into one version of the screenplay of Network, had that great-writer feeling—whether he felt, even momentarily, wintry and towering and Bellovian.

Probably not, is the answer I’m getting from Dave Itzkoff’s Mad as Hell: The Making of Network and the Fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in Movies. Chayefsky, in Itzkoff’s telling, was a battler, a scrapper, low to the ground. And in 1975, as he was getting Network together, he was 52 years old and suffering the routine mortifications of the writer in Hollywood. The head of script development at United Artists—which was supposed to be producing the movie—had pronounced Chayefsky’s screenplay “all madness and bullshit philosophy.” The studio had further proposed a series of changes (as Chayefsky wrote to his lawyer) “so amateurish and counter-productive they are hardly worth commenting on.” But, he added, “I maintained my temper.” Keeping a lid on it was important. To supervise the passage of Howard Beale, flipped-out oracular anchorman/everyman, from the cave of his imagination onto the big screens of America, Chayefsky (whose tantrums were famous) would have to be witheringly, pitilessly sane.

I salute Itzkoff for zooming in at book length on Network, a movie that—as he writes—“used the resources of one mass medium [cinema] to indict another [television] and, beyond it, the degradation and emptiness of contemporary American life.” Large claims can be made for this rather shaggy and confused piece of filmmaking, precisely because it scarcely knows what it is: jeremiad or black comedy or … ? It’s interesting to learn from Mad as Hell that Network was not universally acclaimed upon its release, in 1976. Indeed, it got right up the noses of some reviewers. In New York magazine, John Simon complained of the film’s “sanctimonious smugness and holier-than-thou sententiousness.” Pauline Kael gave it a stinker of a review, as did Frank Rich. They weren’t entirely wrong, these critics, but from a distance of almost four decades, we can see that they had—to use an expression of Christopher Ricks’s—got “hold of the right thing by the wrong end.” In its whirling gestures, its madness and bullshit philosophy, Network opened something up, caused a kind of visionary rent in the fabric. On the other side was the future.

The anchorman Howard Beale’s speech combines the ritual drone of authority with the shriek of the outsider.

Network begins with a voice—The Voice, in fact, expository, pipe-smoking, celestial-paternal, narrating from the cloud of authority. “This story is about Howard Beale, who was the news anchorman on UBS-TV … Howard Beale had been a mandarin of television, the grand old man of news, with a HUT rating of 16 and a 28 audience share.” He had been, in other words, Cronkite-solid, a loyal organ of The Voice. “In 1969, however, his fortunes began to decline.” To abbreviate: his wife died, his HUT rating tanked, booze took hold. “On September 22, 1975, he was fired, effective in two weeks.” So this is Howard Beale, played by Peter Finch, and he’s about to blow.

Was Paddy Chayefsky—not the subtlest of artists—the first to intuit that The Voice was going insane? That within its resonant and dominating timbres lurked a strain of increasing madness? He can’t have been. But nobody dramatized the ensuing breakdown better than he did. “I must make my witness,” mutters Beale as he flaps past a security guard en route to his desk at the UBS studio. His raincoat is drenched and shapeless, his hair is flattened, he looks feverish: the city has been raining on him its special pride-dissolving, bum-creating rain. But he is indeflectible. Technicians back away liked awed votaries. He grips the desk, raises his eyes toward the camera. He’s going out live. “I don’t have to tell you things are bad,” he begins. “Everybody knows things are bad.”

When the rest of Network has fallen away, with all its leaden satire and creaky mood swings and unchewable mouthfuls of Chayefskian dialogue, when we have forgotten William Holden’s droopy, tobacco-tanned face and Faye Dunaway’s Giger-esque cheekbones, this scene remains. It is indelible. “I don’t know what to do about the depression and the inflation and the Russians and the crime in the street,” continues Beale, folksily grave. “All I know is that first you’ve got to get mad. You’ve got to say, ‘I’m a human being, goddamn it! My life has value!’ ” He’s reverberating now, building to a Shakespearean passion. “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!’ ”

What is the greatness of this speech? Why does it still tighten the skin on the scalp? There’s Peter Finch, to begin with, crater-eyed and shivering with last-ditch intensity. Then there is the existential theater of the statement itself: the fist shaken to the heavens, the rooftop yell of Shelleyan-Promethean noncompliance. Grimy old 1976 was a complex moment for Western man. Rail passengers trundling in and out of London’s Paddington Station around the time were hailed by a large piece of underpass graffiti, white paint on sooty bricks: I am an angry passionate soul crying out in this torturous mediocrity. Whether daubed there by a lonely art student, a tripping skinhead, or a collapsed Maoist, it got through: thousands saw it, thousands silently assented.

But there’s more to Howard Beale’s speech than that. In Beale, the enthroned TV presence inveighing like a prophetically illuminated homeless man, Chayefsky was crossing, to electrical effect, two streams, two currents: the ritual drone of authority and the shriek of the outsider. He was also capturing—and here he was truly a soothsayer—the way in which the former would gradually be superseded by the latter. Within years, the sovereign figure of the anchorman, holding it all together for a more or less obedient audience, would begin to fragment into a splintered gallery of ranters and megaphoning marginals—peddlers of dispossession. Glenn Beck, for example, is many people, most of them somewhat fictional. He is Count Cagliostro, reaching magus-like into the supernatural with his fumes of conspiracy and his sub-alchemical obsession with gold. But he is also Howard Beale. There is a shard of Howard Beale, too, in the tinselly furies of Sarah Palin.

Network has a subplot involving the hippie terrorism of the Ecumenical Liberation Army, because the Great Anger, at the time, was still largely the property of the left—freaky bomb makers and drug-maddened utopians, Afros wobbling with fury, etc. The figure of Howard Beale, however, anticipates its migration to the barking, populist right. To complete the quotation with which we opened: “Then suddenly it began to gather, the edges of sounds and voices, until it all surged out in an indistinguishable roar of rage like the thunder of a Nuremberg rally.” Where will it go next, the mad-as-hell-ness? Ask the shade of Paddy Chayefsky. He did it for us once, after all—engineered, under the conditions of art, this flash point in the history of the American soul.