How Sidney Lumet Predicted Our Modern Nightmare

Howard Beale
Peter Finch stars as the disturbed news anchor Howard Beale in "Network." Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

The anger. That’s what strikes me most about Network four decades after its release—the white-hot anger. Sidney Lumet’s Oscar-sweeping black comedy is sharply funny, but the script also crackles with fury—resentment toward the state of America, the realities of crime and inflation, the hollowness of corporate gospel. It’s sheer anger that drives an unwell man to the top of the ratings of the fictional “UBS” network, just as it was anger, we are told, that pushed voters to install another unhinged entertainer, Donald J. Trump, in the real-life White House. Anger sells. White-hot anger (emphasis on “white”).

Watching Network during our modern national nightmare—a nightmare altogether different than the presidential dysfunction unfolding when the movie was written in 1974—it’s the shape and clarity of that anger that strikes me. It’s all there in the film’s most iconic line: “I'm as mad as hell,” evening news anchor Howard Beale declares, wild-eyed and fuming, his hair sopping wet, “and I'm not going to take this anymore.” He implores his viewers to get up from their chairs, to rise from their own lethargy and repeat after him, and they do, sticking their heads out into the thundering night and shouting: “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take it anymore!”

Sometimes anger has no ideology. Or anger is the ideology. (Presumably, it’s the ideology accounting for the thousands of voters who evidently supported Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 and switched to Trump in 2016.) In Network, the man spouting the anger is Beale (Peter Finch, who died before he could accept the Oscar), who learns that he’s being let go from his longtime network perch because of declining ratings. Beale does not go gentle into that good severance package. Instead, the despairing anchor announces that he plans to commit suicide on live TV. But Beale sticks around, and his broadcasts descend into rambling, fiery sermons about the “pointless pain, humiliation and decay” of modern life, and—well, you can guess what happens next. Ratings spike. Viewers are riveted. The suits keep him on air. Finch’s performance is one of those iconic marvels of modern cinema that the '70s seemed to pop out like chicken eggs, but Network is also abetted by a dazzling ensemble cast, including turns from William Holden and Faye Dunaway (who landed an Oscar for her role as a conniving and obsessive programmer).

Related: Nine ways the movie Network predicted the whole Donald Trump circus

The film was written by Paddy Chayefsky, but it owes much of its vision to its director, the late Sidney Lumet. Though never as celebrated and glamorous as Martin Scorsese or Francis Ford Coppola—despite being more prolific than either—Lumet was one of the greatest filmmakers at work during the 1960s and '70s, with Network among his top achievements. His sprawling filmography obsessed over crime, corruption, morality and much in between with a terse, razor-sharp focus. Now, five years after his death, Lumet is the subject of a new documentary by Nancy Buirski called By Sidney Lumet. (It premieres nationwide on PBS on January 3 as part of the American Masters series.) Like much of Lumet’s own work, the documentary is stark and intimate. It’s entirely arranged around a 2008 interview with the auteur, as he reflects on his life and life’s work, intercut with sequences from the movies he’s discussing. (Turns out the guy is a gracious and entertaining talker, with a hell of a lot of good stories.) It can be seen as the very best sort of DVD “extra features” stretched to documentary length, or as a lengthy coffee table book exegesis on Lumet condensed to documentary length—either way, it is a revealing VIP tour through 50 years’ worth of cinematic work.

Lumet tells stories from his early life and wartime service, and he talks much about how his upbringing—being raised “dirt poor” during the Depression—affected his work. He discusses at least a dozen of his films in detail. Of course Network is among them, and it prompts some of Lumet’s bleakest proclamations about the state of corporate entertainment. (As inspiration, he describes having had to attend a meeting with 20 Hollywood department heads who exerted control over his films despite having nothing to do with the creative labor of filmmaking.) Yet the target of the satire was much vaster than that.

“For me, it was a question of corruption in the American spirit,” Lumet says. “Clearly, Network was not just about television. Network is a metaphor for America. One of the things that was so blinding when I read that script was Paddy’s prescience.”

For years, it’s been fashionable to describe this film as prescient, or “ahead of its time.” Until recently, this proclamation manifested itself as a commentary on media much more than politics: Network forecast the rise of shock jock DJs, of hyper-partisan news networks and screaming cable ideologues and reality TV. The movie saw that the future of cable news looked more like Howard Beale than Walter Cronkite. But during the past 18 months, as it became apparent that Trump would dominate and, improbably, win the election, Network has been invoked with far greater frequency and stronger urgency. It’s the film that “foretold the rise of Donald Trump,” according to The Washington Post, and “prophesized how the media would enable [him],” according to Inverse. (Trump, like Beale’s lunacy, has been a tremendous boon to cable news ratings.) And there have been dozens more headlines, including from our own publication:

  • “Nine Ways the Film Network Predicted the Donald Trump Circus” (Newsweek)
  • “The 1976 Film That Foretold the Rise of Trump, Invented Reality TV and Made Suicide a Spectacle” (The Spectator)
  • “Why Donald Trump Makes This the Perfect Time to Rewatch Network” (The Fiscal Times)
  • “Donald Trump Channels Howard Beale” (The Huffington Post)
  • “In 1976, Network Predicted News as Entertainment” (The Hollywood Reporter)
  • “Network Makes This Election Look Like Old News” (Yahoo)

“The American people want someone to articulate their rage for them,” Dunaway’s character remarks in the film. Anger sells, but so does trash talk. In a quotable bit, the madman anchor informs primetime viewers that modern life is awash in “bullshit,” that he’s run out of “bullshit” and has no more of it to dispense. Trump took a similar sledgehammer to the euphemistic parade of bullshit that we recognize as mainstream political rhetoric, somehow shielding his followers from realizing that he had only swapped it out with an even more delusional brand of bullshit, one that doesn’t shy away from lewd language and overt bullying.

But as Sean Fennessey notes in an incisive piece for The Ringer, it’s not just Beale’s character that applies to our present predicament. It’s also Beale’s shadowy, mustachioed boss-villain, Arthur Jensen (Ned Beatty), who does his own ranting and raving off-camera. In one scene, he unleashes a tirade about the global corporate nightmare in which we are all ensconced. (Lumet paraphrases the same rant in By Sidney Lumet as the key to Network’s prescience.)

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

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

That brutal, corporatist worldview is startlingly familiar: Let’s put a businessman in charge. The president-elect, writes Fennessey, “rose to prominence by applying the lessons of both characters — to view business deals as the ultimate achievement, the currency of daily life. He stayed prominent by corralling as much media in as many forms as he could entice or buy.”

With its sleek, corporate setting, Network was an anomaly for Lumet, whose films often favored the grittier environs of city streets, settings populated by cops (some more crooked than others) and criminals (some more competent than others). But the Beale character—a quintessential outsider, a raving “Mad Prophet of the Airwaves”—was classic Lumet.

“I love characters who are rebels,” Lumet says plainly in the documentary. “Not accepting the status quo, not accepting the way it’s always been done…is the fundamental area of human progress. And drama, God knows.” His words are intercut with shots of Al Pacino as the NYPD officer Frank Serpico in Serpico—a real-life outsider who risked his career for his ideals—bloodied and dazed after taking a bullet to the face. “I’m not denying for a minute that I’m attracted to the radical,” the director adds. “I’m attracted to the questioner. I don’t know if life is possible without it.”

* * *

Many of Lumet’s films seemed to predict elements of 21st-century life, with Network only being the most obvious example. There is also 12 Angry Men, which foreshadowed deeper attention being paid to racial bias in the criminal justice system, and Dog Day Afternoon, which was one of the earliest mainstream films to address transgender subjects. The latter is a ferociously well-constructed crime movie starring Pacino as one of those iconic outsiders: the inept, gay bank robber Sonny. His goal, viewers eventually learn, is to raise money for his wife’s sex-change operation, and while it’s not the most modern depiction of trans struggles, Dog Day is the rare film from the pre-AIDS era to portray queer figures as complex, sympathetic characters rather than punchlines. (Lumet countered the sensationalistic nature of the story by employing naturalistic techniques, like having the actors wear their own regular outfits instead of costumes.) Unlike Scorsese, Lumet had little interest in the glamorous side of crime. He had no time for smooth criminals. Dog Day’s unwavering focus is two criminals’ anguish when their heist immediately goes awry. In By Sidney Lumet, the director describes how only Pacino could convey the humanity of this criminal, “because he’s like an open wound up there.” (In the early '70s, Lumet and Coppola basically traded Pacino back and forth, with a shared knack for coaxing out the actor’s greatest performances.)

A few years before Dog Day Afternoon, Lumet made a very different sort of heist movie called The Anderson Tapes (1971). It was also quite prescient, insofar as it was the first Hollywood film to grapple with the rise of electronic surveillance, before it became a prime feature of President Nixon’s self-sabotage. The movie revolves around a career criminal, played by Sean Connery, who plans a major burglary of a luxury apartment without realizing he’s caught on surveillance.

The film is not one of Lumet’s best. The plot is clever in a winking sort of way but not very suspenseful, and the performances lack the operatic force of a Pacino or Peter Finch. What’s really odd about The Anderson Tapes is that the film’s most noteworthy feature—the surveillance obsession—is also a thorn in the side of its plot, buzzing around in the form of bloopy sound effects without making any coherent statement. Coppola’s The Conversation, which appeared three years later, is much more deliberate and emotionally impactful, approaching the same themes from the surveiller’s perspective. (One trivia quirk: The Anderson Tapes marked the feature film debut of Christopher Walken, in a supporting role as one of Connery’s thugs. Walken, then 27, appears as an unrecognizable tussle of boyish blonde hair, until he speaks a few lines of dialogue, and then—yep, it’s Walken.)

Sidney Lumet Sidney Lumet poses during a photocall for his film "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" at the 33rd Deauville American Film Festival September 8, 2007. Vincent Kessler/Reuters

12 Angry Men stands out: It was Lumet’s first movie, it was the first one I saw (in a seventh-grade classroom, of all places) and it condenses so many of his obsessions—the criminal justice system, the difficulty of moral certitude—into one sweaty, cramped jury room. My editor describes Lumet’s films as “simple, perfect machines; nothing is wasted.” Indeed, 12 Angry Men is as minimalist as great cinema gets: It originated as a teleplay, it still looks like a stage play and there is nothing more than the lines spoken and the actors speaking them to carry along its ethical urgency. That minimalist ethos carries over into many of the movies’ settings. In By Sidney Lumet, the director identifies himself as a city rat who “seeks out confined spaces to work in.” All but three minutes of 12 Angry Men unfolds in that jury room. Dog Day Afternoon, with most of its action confined to a group of bodies huddled in a small bank, is downright claustrophobic. In 1974’s Murder on the Orient Express, the plot is confined to a train, and in Lumet’s 1964 adaptation of The Pawnbroker, much of Rod Steiger’s harrowing performance takes place between the walls of a tiny Harlem pawnshop that more closely resembles a prison.

"I wouldn't know what to do with a Western,” Lumet says. "I wouldn't know where to begin. I never bought into the idea that a face is more interesting against a mountaintop than against a wall."

* * *

Sidney Lumet was irked, apparently, by the charge that there was not a common theme running through his work. To him, it seemed clear: The “bedrock concern” of his movies, he states in the documentary, boils down to three words: “Is it fair?”

Crime and punishment always fascinated the filmmaker. After directing Paul Newman in 1982’s acclaimed courtroom flick The Verdict, he received a more muddled reaction for Daniel, his dramatization of the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg story. Yet Lumet says that despite its commercial failure, he considers it one of his greatest works. In the documentary, the director recalls being deeply shaken by the Rosenbergs’ 1953 execution for espionage. Daniel further emphasizes Lumet’s cinematic reverence for outsiders and radicals. Being poor, he says, drew him to radical material. “Radicals always have something to offer,” he insists. 

Lumet’s late-career output is generally considered spottier than his '70s peak, but I would be remiss not to mention his final film, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. It is phenomenal. Philip Seymour Hoffman (in a performance that is at times difficult to watch, even without knowledge of his 2014 demise) and Ethan Hawke star as brothers, both in dire financial straits, who join together to plan the perfect robbery. Except it all goes to hell, with catastrophic consequences. Like Dog Day Afternoon, here is a movie about a botched crime that unravels with wrenching emotional dimensions; the plot is tightly wound, yet encompasses all shades of grief, betrayal and family tragedy. There was something remarkable about Lumet pulling off a movie this good 50 full years after 12 Angry Men. As Roger Ebert marveled in his 2007 review, “It's wonderful when a director like Lumet wins a Lifetime Achievement Oscar at 80, and three years later makes one of his greatest achievements.”

Related: Philip Seymour Hoffman let his characters speak

What Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead has in common with Network and Dog Day Afternoon is a preoccupation with people driven to a harrowing state of desperation. Devil captures, with startling intensity, that hollow feeling in the pit of your stomach when you know you have done wrong—horribly, nightmarishly wrong—and are only beginning to grapple with the fact that it cannot be undone. Lumet’s films have little interest in evil or amoral characters, just characters drawn to amoral deeds. That, and what he calls “corruption in the American spirit.” Seem relevant?

There are also questions of spectatorship and moral courage, of standing up or standing by. It’s a steep drop in worldview to get from 12 Angry Men and Serpico (both movies that are largely about one man standing up to a mob in the face of great injustice) to Network, in which media bigwigs exploit the mad prophet Beale, who is clearly unwell, for profit instead of getting him psychiatric help. Then there is the specter of the Holocaust, the most catastrophic culmination of mass bystander effect in modern history, which casts a traumatic pall over one of Lumet’s bleakest pictures, The Pawnbroker.

That thread ran through Lumet’s career, but also his life. In By Sidney Lumet, he tells a disturbing story from his World War II days that evidently impacted his films. He was on a train when he witnessed a group of soldiers in a nearby compartment sexually assaulting a girl. He debated whether to intervene, but because he feared for his own life against these eight other men—and because life is often not like the movies—he did not. “It was a kind of descent into bestiality,” Lumet says of the soldiers. And here he is, 60-something years later, and it still haunts him, his own decision more than theirs. “It's a kind of self-loathing that comes when you've done terrible things in your life. I think that's probably as bad as anything I've ever done.”

There are those characters who would have intervened, and those who would not have, but what’s more interesting is what’s in between—the guilt and anguish and all that. Besides, most people just want to watch. Isn’t that the moral of Network, the judgment it renders on our voyeuristic shell of a culture? Dog Day Afternoon shares that voyeuristic gene: As the hostage situation goes on, the movie’s focus expands to include the mob of people gathered to see the spectacle unravel. They’re hooked. Whenever something frightening and brash rears its vulgar head—in a train compartment, on your television screen, on the debate stage—we all just want to watch. Let the crazy guy keep talking. Put the crazy guy in charge. Now watch what happens next.

Read more from Newsweek.com:

- Nine ways the film 'Network' predicted the Donald Trump circus
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