One of the greatest ironies of today remains the modern addiction to news media while simultaneously cursing its existence. I think everyone is guilty of it. You either can’t stand the right, the left, the middle, and every talking head who says something you don’t like. Even if you can stop watching they won’t stop talking and you’re stuck, either with your head in the sand or mesmerized as to how things got that way. Ours is a world of media inundation, where popularity and high ratings lead to financial and social freedom. But not always.
Network is the story of Howard Beale, the first known instance of a man who was killed because he had lousy ratings.
Who is Howard Beale? The legendary, mythical television news anchor whose ratings are in the pits. As this classic from 1976 begins, Beale, played by Peter Finch, states he is going to kill himself live on television. In a week’s time, he ends up starting an evangelical movement of angry Americans and his ratings go up. The rallying cry is now infamous: “I’m mad as hell and I can’t take it anymore!” Initially repulsed by his promise of bloodshed, the parent company changes tune when the ratings skyrocket far beyond any news show, hell any television show. The network executives throw the bloodthirsty executive Diane Christensen (Faye Dunaway) at his producer (William Holden) to sustain the show as the highest rated on television. Beale leaks his sanity day by day, claiming America is “sick” and is corroded by television and money. Lamenting the moral ineptitude of the nation and its economy, Beale sighs, “All I know is, you’ve got to get mad. You’ve got to say, ‘I’m a human being, goddamn it. My life has value.'”
Much of the verve in Network is in its forceful, prodding dialog. Paddy Chayefsky’s script might be his finest achievement in his impressive career. Echoing the self-inflicted death of Christine Chubbuck, Chayefsky took that point and proverbially “rolled with it.” Network could have been about a disgruntled worker or a eulogy for the dying art of news reporting. Instead, Chayefsky turned a simple concept into a scathing critique of then-modern television and economics. He gently prophisized evangelical television. Diverted the fear of the Cold War into distrust of Big Oil Conglomerates. Revealed the false comfort of populism as a residual effect of commonality of capitalism. In short, it’s a masterful work to read, yet with so many heavy hitters in this film (Finch, Dunaway, Holden, and Robert Duvall) and a great director, the script feels effortless.
But the heavy-handed politicking of the film doesn’t. Network’s highest points seem to be the ones that strike the viewer’s moral well being. Ned Beatty, playing the owner of a megaconglomerate, delivers a monologue that sticks to the ribs. Hitting a larger issue of the global economy, his attempt to scare Howard Beale straight seems just as much an attempt by Chayefsky to speak directly to the viewer. The speech, which lasts about five minutes, marks the hopelessness of nationalism and populism in the face of commerce and the power of capitalism. Theory, books, studies all mean nothing in the great “corporate cosmology” that governs the world we live in. When Beale starts blubbering about being “totally unnecessary as human beings, and as replaceable as piston rods,” he couldn’t hit closer to home.
“You are television incarnate, Diana,” Holden tells Dunaway, “indifferent to suffering, insensitive to joy. All of life is reduced to the common rubble of banality.” Under this prism, the rest of the film plays out as a bitter satire of not just the entertainment industry but those who consume it as well. There is no “right or wrong” coverage, just news that gets viewers and those that don’t. In this “dollars and sense” era, informing the populace to the truth is the last thing on the agenda. Misinformation and disinformation are the new soma, untouchable and essential all at once.
The film’s prophetic qualities are almost unmatched. I remember when Jurassic Park came out, every major media source jokingly talked about bringing back the dinosaurs. That wasn’t prophetic. That was rubbish. Network could have just been a commentary on television. Instead, with 35 years of age, it’s almost like looking at the painting of Dorian Gray. Holden ditches his relationship with his wife for a fling with a woman who can’t love him back. Finch parlays his anger into a career, gaining followers as mindless as those he indicts on a nightly basis. Faye Dunaway’s addiction to career opportunities overpowers her sexuality. Humanity is losing itself to profit margins and cheap thrills with nothing to show for it.
Inevitably, telling people what they already know and reminding them of the difficulties of their lives is the last thing they want to hear. And with that, I tip my hat to this film for doing it for me.