Sidney Lumet's "Network": A Modern Review
“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…”
Corporate overlord Arthur Jensen’s monologue in Sidney Lumet’s 1976 masterpiece Network supplies the most eloquent summary of the current governing corporate political orthodoxies of the West. There are no nations. No peoples. All these distinctions have already been liquidated in the globalist system of perpetual growth and expansion.
Network was written by the revered American screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky, who earned one of his record three Academy Awards for his work. His initial inspiration stemmed from the infamous on-screen suicide of local news reporter Christine Chubbuck, who was later more directly immortalized in the 2016 indie film Christine directed by Antonio Campos.
Chayefsky, though, took the incident to meditate on the structure of the media more generally. “Television will do anything to earn a rating!” he said to one interviewer. And ultimately what seemed to be getting the best ratings was rage. Rage at Vietnam. Rage at Watergate. Rage at a country that was increasingly failing to deliver on the promise that it made as its foundation. America in the seventies was no longer an aspirational dream of comfort, family, upward mobility and liberty, but an uncanny parody of itself.
Beginning in the sixties, the dark undercurrent of American prosperity began to metastasize into discontent, alienation and war. Alienation was everywhere. The old Hollywood of entertaining popcorn flicks became the New Hollywood of darker films like Network. Television sitcoms transformed from American exceptionalist family shows like Leave it to Beaver into comic meditations on the depressing banality of work in shows like Taxi. The news became a pseudo-philosophical rumination on a nation in decline.
America’s vibe had shifted, and Chayefsky captured it brilliantly with his dramatic gifts. But it was director Sidney Lumet who made Network amongst the most powerful cinematic works of pop critiques of all time. Ultimately what makes Network so resonant and prophetic is not just its depiction of the rage that saturated American media, but the way in which rage is absorbed, packaged, and sold back to viewers as media. The media in Network is a pressure release valve that transforms alienation into cheap entertainment. Is there a sharper artistic assessment of where radical dissident politics tends to end up?
In contrast with other auteurs of the New Hollywood who achieved success partly through critically generated mythos — Scorsese, Kubrick, Polanski, Coppola, etc — Lumet worked his way up through the industry the old-fashioned way. He began his career directing off-Broadway plays in the 1940s, and then earned respect directing episodes of TV shows. It wasn’t until 1957 that Lumet got a chance to direct a film: 12 Angry Men, a teleplay written by Reginald Rose that depicts twelve jurors deliberating the guilt of a teenager charged with homicide was first aired live on CBS in 1954. Its success paved the path for a film adaptation starring and produced by Henry Fonda, who hired Lumet to repeat his work on the big screen. The film was a roaring success, earning Academy Awards nominatons for Lumet, Rose, and Fonda, and is now regarded as one of the best courtroom dramas of all time.
12 Angry Men is a film that marks a transition from the Old to the New Hollywood, with Lumet as a bridge between the two generations of ‘the biz’. Lumet was technically a child of Old Hollywood: a workhorse who gradually climbed through the studio system. But his ideas about politics, corruption, cultural hypocrisy and societal contradiction position him within the New Hollywood, which makes sense considering that the film artist wouldn’t reach the status of an inarguable auteur until the ’70s.
Despite being older than his contemporaries, Lumet’s work in the ’70s is as era-defining as Scorsese’s or DePalma’s. Lumet was furiously productive during the decade, and helmed two Al Pacino-led masterpieces in Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon that further honed his ability to blend social realism with biting satire. Dog Day Afternoon, in particular, is foretelling of the vision that would come with Network in the way that it manages to blend absurdism with realism to the point of revealing reality as the highest form of absurdism. With Network Lumet’s vision evolves from sharp and gritty social realism into a transcendental satirical genius.
Sidney Lumet's "Network" (1976)
Lumet’s politics would be considered complicated by today’s standards — he never directly embraces a clear political cause in his films. His work prior to Network broadly echoes the concerns of the New Left: anti-authoritarian, distrustful of government and the police, focused on justice and the miscarriage of justice. But with Network Lumet refuses to make a case for how the world should be and instead methodically shows the world as it is.
The plot of the movie follows the consequences of the psychological breakdown of Union Broadcasting System’s nightly news anchor Howard Beale, played by Peter Finch, who will earn a posthumous Oscar for his performance, beating Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver. Beale’s friend and the network’s News Director Max Schumacher, played by William Holden, informs Beale that he only has two weeks left on-air due to poor ratings. Driven by madness and alcoholism, Beale gets on air and tells the audience that he will kill himself live on camera in two weeks, launching his now famous monologue where he rages against a country in decline, culminating with the iconic refrain:
“I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!”
Beale’s channeling of the righteous anger of the American populace immediately becomes a big hit with audiences: to put it in contemporary terms, he becomes a viral sensation and a kind of meme. The bigwigs at “the Network” decide to exploit the ratings bump, and call in entertainment news expert Diana Christenson, played by Faye Dunaway, to develop Beale’s psychosis into a nightly entertainment news program. The film then follows Beale’s broadcasts as audiences rejoice over a bold new folk hero willing to tell the truth.
Corporations, in other words, sell dissent, and especially anti-capitalist dissidence, back to a dissenting market segment. Before Reagan and the industrial circulation of the cursed word ‘neoliberalism’, this phenomenon had not yet been widely observed. But Lumet and Chayefsky saw where the 1970s were headed. The radicals had turned into young urban professionals, and the corporate media was absorbing them.
In one of the film’s best touches, we see Christenson, desperate for another commercial success, cut a deal with a terrorist group called the Ecumenical Liberation Army for the group to document its actions on TV. Christenson’s counterparty is Afro-sporting light-skinned Communist Party representative named Lauren Hobbs, clearly based on Angela Davis. Davis remains universally celebrated on the Left for her stated commitments to the Black Panthers and the Communist cause. But Lumet saw right through her. Hobbs is depicted as a cynical media operator. After initial skepticism, she relents to Christenson when she’s offered editorial control over the program. Decades later Angela Davis continues to play her role as the mainstream media’s favorite communist, making the case for the continued dominance of the Democratic Party.
Here, too, the network is happy to voice the rage and alienation of the masses so long as it remains profitable and doesn’t interfere with its strategic needs. Yet the tone of the film shifts when UBS’s corporate parent CCA decides to sell out to a larger Saudi conglomerate. Beale’s frenetic rants get too real for the network precisely at the moment that his speech becomes precise. This is when Arthur Jensen calls Beale in and gives the iconic “System of Systems” speech. “You have meddled with the primal forces of nature!”, Jensen booms.
Overmatched and chastened, Beale is allowed to continue with his nightly jeremiads so long as he steers clear of strategic topics and his ratings don’t slip. But the ratings do slip. It turns out audiences can only have their alienation channeled for so long, and they turn on Beale once they begin to find his daily dose of reality depressing. As a last-ditch effort to save the network, Christenson organizes the on-air assassination of Beale, fulfilling Beale’s prophecy of dying on-air. The network reigns supreme.
Lumet’s Network is not only a masterful work of film art, it’s also an eerily prescient piece of pop philosophy. Its heavy use of monologues gives it a dramatic quality similar to a righteous sermon. In fact, it was this quality of the film that caused Pauline Kael to denounce it in a famous New Yorker review of the film called “Hot Air”: “He’s like a village Crazy bellowing at you: blacks are taking over, revolutionaries are taking over, women are taking over.” But the film retains its power decades later precisely because of those monologues telling us something real. What Lumet and Chayefsky had noticed was the way in which existing vertical power structures were adopting the language of the radicals to expand. In 2023, who could disagree?