Sidney Lumet's 'Network' was years ahead of its time in portraying today's TV news

When "Network" came out in 1976, it was easy to question its portrayal of a cynical, ranting, exploitive future for television news. But Lumet had it ever so right.

When "Network" came out in 1976, it was easy to question its portrayal of a cynical, ranting, exploitive future for television news. But Lumet had it ever so right.

“We’re talking about putting a manifestly irresponsible man on national television.” — Robert Duvall to Faye Dunaway, “Network,” 1976.

This is written as I interrupt a Netflix streaming of the above-referenced movie during one revisiting of “Network” among many since my first viewing in New York a week before it premiered 35 years ago.

The occasion then was a press junket. Several of the film’s principals, including the above two, were present on stage as we of the national press (I was with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer then) questioned them about the audacity of the Paddy Chayefsky screenplay and their views as to how the revolutionary movie would be received.

Streaming it Sunday night was for the benefit of paying personal homage to the life’s work of Sidney Lumet, the “Network” director who died Saturday (April 9) at age 86. Lumet was among the celebrities that afternoon in New York, although I recall that he, among the others, probably was the least often questioned. Such neglect likely happened a lot during his distinguished career, because he made films that tended to have performances and profundities overwhelm most viewers’ sense of the presence of a director.

Lumet never won an Oscar for directing (he was given an honorary plaudit in 2005), which will seem virtually unbelievable to many who go back and look at “Twelve Angry Men,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Network” or, in particular, “The Verdict.”

Nor was Lumet’s direction necessarily the most conspicuous aspect of “Network.” Dunaway won her best-actress Oscar (which she deserved more for “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Chinatown”). Beatrice Straight was cited as best supporting actress, a comical choice in retrospect given just one hysterical scene of any significance. And Peter Finch was given a posthumous best-actor nod, even though his iconic, unstable sage Howard Beale was more of a supporting role.

Chayefsky took the fourth “Network” Oscar for a screenplay that has come to be regarded as one of the greatest scripts ever written for film.

At the junket many of us with questions wondered whether “Network” would be considered too far over the top as far as a cynical conjecture about the future of television. In 1976, after all, television news was more about researching, editing, and reporting. Seattle station KING-TV was considered the national gold standard for local TV as far as spending money and making an effort to report news that actually affected lives rather than merely interested or titillated viewers. National network reports mostly were formal, focused, solemn, and sedate.

Did Lumet and Chayefsky genuinely believe that TV “news” someday would regress into patent theatricality? A “yes” answer was difficult to defend back then, which no doubt is why many viewers circa 1976 dismissed “Network” as pure fantasy.

Viewed any time during the most recent few years, of course, “Network” has seemed prescient, given what has come to pass: reality television dominating prime time; cable “news” stations featuring combatants from the extremes of the political spectrum, taunting one another like fourth-graders on the playground.

That’s why I paused to write this when, 30 minutes into my latest "Network" viewing, I heard yet again the remark from the Robert Duvall character, playing a TV exec in disbelief about the Dunaway character’s plans for unleashing the real Howard Beale. Many back then would have shared the Duvall character’s skepticism about having an apparently deranged Beale bellow and bray hysterically to a national TV audience.

Now such displays have become so commonplace on our airwaves that it might prompt skepticism if a Duvall character in a 2011-“Network” sequel said: “We’re talking about putting a manifestly responsible man on national television.”


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