When audiences left theaters in 1976 after viewing Network, a film about a deranged or messianic newscaster and his ratings-mad producers, they were surely aware that they had just witnessed the product of uncommon artistic vision. What they might not have realized was that one of the film’s most unique moments occurs during the opening credits.
Before the names of the stars (Robert Duvall and Faye Dunaway among them) or the famous director (Sidney Lumet), the viewer sees “By Paddy Chayefsky,” an honor rarely shown to a screenwriter.
That his name would be featured so prominently is testament not only to his genius but also to his uncompromising drive to see his message brought to the screen exactly as it had sprung from his fingers onto the page. New York Times culture critic Dave Itzkoff documents this journey wonderfully in his new book.
In Mad as Hell, Itzkoff tells the story, lovingly and in depth, of the creation of a brilliant and important movie that would almost certainly never be made today. We see the force of Chayefsky’s will as boon and hindrance, able to blast through the barriers to the movie’s completion while sometimes alienating potential allies. His insistence that his message not be diluted bordered on the mania of his most indelible character, Howard Beale, who yells into a news camera, live on the air, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this any more!”
There are also many interesting moments from the set, such as Robert Duvall mooning pedestrians down on Sixth Avenue from the network offices between takes or the special light constructed to keep Chayefsky, who liked to be close to the action to ensure that the actors stuck to his script, from wandering in front of the main lighting.
Network stands so strongly because it is a movie-out-of-time. In 1976, it was an ironic commentary on the state of the American people, with the bloodthirsty element of the news media played up to farcical levels as a projection of the public’s desires. By 2014, the movie is more like a mirror held up to the news programming on networks dedicated to partisan audiences, with ratings as the fickle king.
Network was seen by many as a scathing assault on broadcast news media and the culture of conformity, but Itzkoff makes a convincing argument that Chayefsky was only using the news as a metaphor to reflect the degeneracy of empathy and decency. He was saddened when news media leaders took offense and even apologized. In a letter to Walter Cronkite (whose daughter appeared in the film in the role of a Patty Hearst-like character) Chayefsky wrote: “I never meant this film to be an attack on television as an institution in itself, but only as a metaphor for the rest of the times.”
Later, to an audience of students, he elaborated: “My rage isn’t against television. It’s against the dehumanization of people.”
The book is perhaps a bit light on analysis, and Itzkoff doesn’t mount much of a personal interpretation of the film until close to the end. There is also precious little criticism in terms of suggesting where the filmmakers might have made missteps.
But occasionally, hagiography is necessary. Howard Beale is after all a modern saint — somehow more modern today than the day he was created — or at least a holy fool. He deserves to have his story told as deftly as Itzkoff has told it here.
Nicholas Mancusi is a writer in New York.