Nerding out about ‘Network,’ almost 40 years later

To know Network is to love Network. Written and directed respectively by legendary talents Paddy Chayefsky and Sidney Lumet, the 1976 pitch-black newsroom comedy gave the world the classic character Howard Beale, a news anchor who becomes a ratings sensation when he undergoes a radical on-air metamorphosis, transforming from a mild-mannered journo to latter-day prophet, with a direct line to God/Satan/the voice of his own psychotic break/possibly a combination of the three. Beale galvanizes a nation to run to their windows, stick their heads out, and scream into the night one of Hollywood’s all-time greatest lines: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!”

At the time, this film was considered one of the most powerful critiques to date of the ratings-obsessed media. But here’s the thing, we’re here 39 years later in 2015 and the film STILL serves as a powerful critique of today’s media. Ratings have become clicks, but we’re still talking about the same thing: how far (and how low) will media makers go to get eyeballs on screens.

This past Thursday,  Film Independent (known for the LA Film Festival  and the Film Independent Spirit Awards) did a Live Read of  Network‘s screenplay. The Film Independent Live Read has become something of an LA cult tradition, Jason Reitman (of Juno and Up in the Air fame) usually directs a host of A-listers, bringing new life to a screenplay from the past, with thrilling modern twists. In 2013, Reitman flipped the script and did an all-female version of Mamet’s all-male Glengarry Glen Ross with luminaries  Robin Wright, Catherine O’Hara, and Mae Whitman playing the f-bomb-slinging real estate sharks. This year, Reitman directed a Live Read of The Princess Bride, with Cary Elwes reprising his role as Westley, Rachel McAdams recreating Buttercup, Patrick Stewart as Humperdinck, and original Princess Bride director Rob Reiner stepping into the role of Grandpa – swoon and more swoon.

The Live Read of Network was impeccably cast: Tony Goldwyn AKA Scandal’s Fitz played beleaguered news division president Max Schumacher (originated by William Holden) and ethics-free network programming head Diane Christensen, originally played by Faye Dunaway, was played in the Live Read by the chillingly great Minnie Driver (Dear Cable Stations, Please give Driver her own Breaking Bad, she will win you all the Emmys and Golden Globes, thanks! Love, Me). The slam-dunk cast was rounded out by comedy favorites like Fred Willard and Nick Kroll (and my forever-crush Dermot Mulroney was also in the mix, shout!). Finally, the pivotal role of Howard Beale, the “mad prophet of the airwaves,” was played by  Aaron Sorkin. YES, THAT AARON SORKIN. I attended the reading with one of my Hello Giggles favorites Kayleigh Roberts, and when Aaron was announced as Beale, hand to God, we clutched each other and silently screamed like we were teen girls watching The Beatles perform on The Ed Sullivan Show for the first time.

Helming the whole shebang was Scott Sternberg, a fashion designer and photographer best known for his clothing line Band of Outsiders, who, when offered the opportunity to direct a Film Independent Live Read, immediately went for Network, his all-time favorite movie. I got to talk to Scott about the classic movie and the Live Read, and specifically what makes Network feel so timely, nay, clairvoyant, today

“It talks about the power of mass media, and you know, I think as the years go on, in 1976, mass media was TV, that was the height of technology, and then technology allows for innovation and new forms of media, so we have the internet, obviously, and now social media, so you’re watching the same things, the same kind of exploitation, and this mass hysteria, and this sort of drone culture increase as more platforms hypnotize us…So I think the prescience is just about nailing what was so profound, what is so profound about the tower of media. The impact of technology over the years is just exponential.”

Of course, I HAD to ask about working with Sorkin, the standout in a night of standouts. Sorkin was so good, in fact, that I promptly IMDb’d him after the Live Read, convinced I had missed him in a host of leading roles, but nopes, he has 7 acting credits on the site, three instances of playing “Man in a Bar,” a turn as an ad exec in The Social Network, and twice he has played himself. This is not acceptable. Aaron Sorkin is SO good at acting, I am going to just stand in a corner and hold my breath until Sorkin does more acting.

“Aaron Sorkin is the modern-day Paddy Chayefsky and I knew this was his favorite movie… and I knew he was a ham,” Scott explained. “And I think when you’re a writer like Aaron, I would assume when you’re writing, you know, he writes long monologues as well, if you look at all of his work, and really brilliant monologues, just like Paddy Chayefsky, you have to assume if a writer is writing that stuff, they’re kind of acting that stuff as they’re writing it. That’s how the rhythm and the cadence of speech become so impactful, they’re not just thinking about it in their heads. It just felt like such a perfect idea, and it really wasn’t hard to convince him. Honestly, it was just a matter of explaining the concept of a Live Read, which is that it’s a reinterpretation, a reimagination, and the spontaneity of it is everything. And in terms of directing him, I didn’t have to do a thing. I just – it’s like, with all these guys, the idea is there’s no pressure, you’re not meant to be imitating Faye Dunaway or Bill Holden, you just get in there and live in it, listen to each other and do what you do as actors.”

So, in this era of remakes, are we due for a Network reboot (you know, pending The Sork’s availability)? As Scott sees it, a Live Read is about as far as a modern-day revival of the material should go.

“There’s just no point in remaking it. It stands the test of time, so why impair its legacy? There’s no need to update it. It’s so modern, it’s so relevant.”

Scott’s point is well-taken. It’s so important to come back time and time again to a film like Network both to appreciate its Cassandra-like predictions of the future (Seriously, you guys, that everyone-shouting-out-their-windows-in-the-rain scene is TOTALLY the beginning of Angry Twitter and also just Regular Twitter) and to recognize all the ways in which things have NOT changed. It’s too easy to be nostalgic about the past, but the truth is, we are still wrestling with the problems of the 70s today, and barring everyone becoming super-crazy-enlightened all at the exact same time, these are the problems we will be wrestling with in the 2050s and beyond. It is important to have art like Network that reminds us what it has always meant to live through through chaotic times.

(Images via MGM and courtesy of Wireimage and Film Independent, photographer Araya Diaz)

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