It was almost 40 years ago that Network railed against television’s feeding of our most idiot tastes in a quest for ratings. This was a time before shock jocks, rolling news, viewers ‘having their say’, and headlines spun from nothing but a desire to fluff up enough fake fury in its audience that they might stay tuned until the next ad break. Every year the mirror it holds up to the television world looks less and less warped, with everything but its violent ending eminently plausible, and even that not completely unimaginable. The speech howled by Peter Finch, as the newscaster whose public breakdown becomes a ratings winner, in which he encourages viewers to scream out of their windows that, “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore,” is one of the great monologues of cinema and as worth a shout now as it was in 1976.
Dave Itzkoff’s Mad As Hell is perhaps not entirely about the making of Network but about the distillation of the anger of its screenwriter, Paddy Chayefsky. Itzkoff’s brisk and thoroughly researched book begins well before Network was even a germ of an idea, following Chayefsky’s work through television to Oscar wins for writing Marty and The Hospital, his ideas always focused on men weighed down by life finally reaching their limit. While Itzkoff writes with complete reverence for his subject, his prose is detailed enough that you can view another Chayefsky between the lines. He’s a man of unusual talent, with the belligerence and snobbishness that comes from knowing this, and sometimes a total hypocrite — though Chayefsky repeatedly gripes about bad TV he is not above, when desperate for work, pitching a drama called The Rabbi Mystery Show.
He is as irate and argumentative as every one of his subjects. Yet who needs to be easy when you can produce writing like Network? The best parts of the book are the chapters detailing how Chayefsky beat Network into shape, taking it too far, losing his point and arguing with himself via script notes. It’s a fascinating look into how a brilliant mind works. It would be interesting to have a little more on the whys rather than the hows of the movie’s creation, to see just what made Chayefsky so prescient, but still, this is a rich story of a man who knew too much.
Reviewed by Olly Richards