For my money, the best performance he ever captured was that of Paul Newman in The Verdict, with Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon not far behind. But maybe Lumet’s true masterpiece, not just in shepherding actors to some of their best work but as an all-around filmmaker, was Network, his sly, deadpan slice of wacky '70s-era prophecy that just doesn't seem so wacky anymore. If you've never seen it, or not in a long time, I suggest you check it out. Not only does it remain one of the more enjoyable feature-length satires Hollywood has produced, it can also mess with your head.
For the uninitiated: Network, released in 1976, is about UBS, a fictional fourth network—strange to recall that there were only three major commercial networks in those days before the ascendancy of cable. An aging, over-the-hill anchorman, Howard Beale (Peter Finch) is supposed to announce his "retirement" (he's being forced out) during a news broadcast, but instead he announces that he plans to commit suicide on the air.
The executives, already struggling with bottom-of-the-heap ratings, are mortified by the scandal, but when Howard begs for another chance to address the public and apologize, UBS strikes gold: He asserts, on the air, that he said what he said because "I ran out of bullshit," and goes on to elaborate on the various ways in which life is bullshit. Primed by the first debacle, the ratings for the second debacle skyrocket.
A pantherish programming exec (Faye Dunaway) is given control of the news, & turns it into a sideshow (or, if you insist, into more of a sideshow) with Howard at its center, now thoroughly over the edge, spewing secular-evangelical stand-up rants about modern alienation & soullessness, & teaching the audience to spout the passionate if rather vague catechism "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore!"
It's a hit, & before long Dunaway's programmer has the network's other shows following suit. She even builds a series around footage of the real-life crimes of a domestic terrorist cadre along the lines of the Sybionese Liberation Army.
I was in 9th grade when I first saw this movie, & while I thoroughly enjoyed it—I was especially a fan of Dunaway’s big orgasm scene—I can remember thinking, even at that tender age, that it was all absurd, outrageous, satirically ham-fisted. It sure doesn't seem that way anymore.
Of course I'm not the first person, or the hundredth, to point out how joltingly prophetic Network came to look in the ensuing decades. The great, unapologetically didactic screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky, probably drawing initial inspiration from the real-life on-air suicide of Florida newscaster Christine Chubbuck in 1974, paints a broad canvas that seems to anticipate everything from "Reality" TV to FOX News. But watching the movie now, you may find that you have another reaction which, when you think about it, is even more disturbing: The film has gone around the bend of prophetic and begun to seem...well, a little quaint.
I mean, really—a news show with a variety format, centered on a ranting maniac, with a psychic segment & a gossip segment? Big deal. That sort of showmanship now is old school; nobody would think twice about it.
What rescues Network from this datedness is that Chayefsky (who died in 1981, after writing only one more movie, 1980's Altered States) recognizes how perfectly harmless & congenial the corporate Powers That Be would find Howard's rousing but unspecific fury—it's just one more product they can co-opt. Only in the movie's final twist, when Howard rails one night against a merger between the network's parent company & the Saudis (!) does he suddenly find that he's captured the attention of his employers. He's called on the carpet before the head of the conglomerate (Ned Beatty), who preaches to him with Messianic fervor:
...It is the international system of currency which determines the vitality 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 21-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...
...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, interwoven, interacting, multivaried, multinational dominion of dollars...
...The world is a business, Mr. Beale; it has been since man crawled out of the slime. 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...
It's basically the world that Aldous Huxley describes in Brave New World, & Howard's democratic ire simply deflates before this blueprint for a contented corporate world-state (& not being Mad As Hell any more leads to his destruction). I think maybe Chayefsky's rage deflated a little, too. Chilling though it is, I think deep down Chayefsky, like Howard, may have felt that this corporate honcho's vision might truly be the best we could do for ourselves, as a society.
What reason does Chayefsky offer for our inevitable conformity? Well, human nature, maybe, but with a compounding factor: Television, of course. Near the end of the film, Network's hero, the ousted, worldly-wise News Director (William Holden) breaks off his affair with Dunaway's panther woman with these gallant words:
...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 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...
This seems the slightest tad hyperbolic, & considering that Chayefsky became famous through television plays like Marty (1953), some might argue that it's a little disingenuous, too. But as someone who really enjoys TV, I just wish that this indictment was easier to dismiss. I've often defended TV against what I saw as cultural snobbery & posing, but my defense has generally been about content—that the TV series is potentially as valid a long-fiction format as the novel, for instance, or that the level of writing and acting on contemporary TV is higher, overall, than that in contemporary movies. It's not as easy to mount a defense of the long-term effect of TV on the individual psyche, or on society.
Who hasn't felt it while channel-surfing? You skip from staged horror to real-life horror to insipid glitzy entertainment to superficial journalism to, yes, works of intelligence & decency, & even occasionally works of fine art, all of it shot through with the constant plea of "buy, buy, buy" & all of it rolling right over you, with your response to it flattened out. Have you ever wondered if your response to real life wasn't gradually being flattened out in the same way? I certainly have.
One last irony occurs to me: Is it possible that some of what's happened in television over the last thirty-odd years might actually have been inspired by Network? The thought would appall Chayefsky the Man, perhaps, but it could hardly fail to bring a smile to the Ghost of Chayefsky the Dramatist.