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‘Network’ @ 45: Meddling with Primal Forces

The death this past weekend of character actor supreme Ned Beatty prompted me to revisit the screenplay of the film that featured the role for which he received his lone Academy Award nomination.

“Network,” which was released 45 years ago this coming November, is up there with, among others, “Casablanca,” “All About Eve,” “The Godfather,””Some Like It Hot” and “Chinatown” in that hallowed pantheon of movie scripts — the sort of screenplay that not only is quoted, well, 45 years later ... but also serves as a touchstone for those who dare tread the same territory.

The work of Paddy Chayefsky — who received one of his three Oscars for the script — “Network” turns around the camera for an unflinching portrait of the dangers of society falling victim to feeding the beast of all-consuming media.

Over the years, it has become Peter Finch’s portrayal of Howard Beale — a doomed network news anchor who, while losing his mind, scores big ratings — that we think of first.

But while we’re all thinking to ourselves that we’re mad as hell and ... well, you know the rest ... it Beatty’s role as Communications Corporation of America overlord Arthur Jensen who twists what had been a darkly comic satire inside-out to hold up the mirror to what Beale (and, by proxy, the audience) have become accomplices.

Beatty, whose major credits to that point were “Deliverance” and “Nashville,” was only on screen for 5 minutes and 53 seconds — the bulk of which was in a monologue preaching his gospel to a thunderstruck Beale.

Beatty was a last-minute cast replacement in the role, who has one day to learn the monlogue and filmed it in a single day — which, considering the result, was a remarkable melding of performance and text.

“Network” is my head’s favorite movie (my heart’s, as oft-stated, is 1983’s “Local Hero”), primarily for its approach to the material.

In 1976, I couldn’t have been in a better target for this type of movie — a sophomore journalism major with a nascent cynicism emerging on the heels of Watergate and Vietnam who, in the past 12 months, had read “1984” and seen “Citizen Kane” ... each for the first time.

By the time Howard Beale’s news report turns into a full hour dominated by his ranting about the state of the world (this was 45 years ago), it was nearly impossible not to believe you were witnessing a one-of-a-kind film.

I’ve read Chayefsky’s screenplay three or four times now, and usually find something new in it.

The underlying truths in “Network” never grow old — even as its acolytes do.

Mail Tribune news editor Robert Galvin can be reached at rgalvin@rosebudmedia.com

‘I have chosen you to preach this evangel, Mr. Beale’

Written by Paddy Chayefsky; performed by Ned Beatty and Peter Finch

JENSEN

You have meddled with the primal forces of nature, Mr. Beale, and I won’t have it, is that clear?!

You think you have 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 and immane, interwoven, interacting, multi-variate, multi-national dominion of dollars — petro-dollars, electro-dollars, multi-dollars, Reichmarks, rubles, rin, pounds and shekels!

It is the international system of currency that determines the totality of life on this planet!

That is the natural order of things today! That is the atomic, 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?

(pause)

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 A T & T and Dupont, Dow, Union Carbide and Exxon. Those are the nations of the world today.

What do you think the Russians talk about in their councils of state — Karl Marx?

They pull out their linear programming charts, statistical decision theories and minimax solutions and compute the price-cost probabilities of their transactions and investments just like we do.

We no longer live in a world of nations and ideologies, Mr. Beale. The world is a college of corporations, inexorably detemined by the immutable by-laws of business.

The world is a business, Mr. Beale! It has been since man crawled out of the slime, and our children, Mr. Beale, will live to see that perfect world in which there is no war and famine, oppression and 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 to preach this evangel, Mr. Beale.

HOWARD

(humble whisper) Why me?

JENSEN

Because you’re on television, dummy.

Mail Tribune news editor Robert Galvin can be reached at rgalvin@rosebudmedia.com