Retro Review: Network
We take a look at Network, a film from the 70’s with a refrain that echoes to today. It’s fairly entertaining as well, so that’s a plus.
Fake News. I’m sick of hearing those words. I’m sure you are too. But this isn’t a new phenomenon (they used to use its proper taxonomy: lies). Journalistic integrity has taken it’s lumps throughout history, and the idea to merge reality with fiction didn’t just spring fully formed from cracking open Kim Kardashian’s empty skull. In that respect, 1976’s Network is old news.
It is a fascinating film in many regards though. If you were to use it like some Nostradamus prediction of what 2017 Network News would look like, it’s amazing what it got right. It’s more stunning for what it got wrong. But most importantly, it stands on its own as an entertaining film and (at the time) a unique thought experiment.
UBS is a major television network with a major problem: its ratings are in the tank. Howard Beale (Peter Finch, in his final performance) is lead Anchor of the UBS nightly news. Facing termination for his slacking ratings, Howard announces that he will commit suicide on live TV. The firestorm surrounding this pronouncement gives the cynical executives of UBS an idea: outrage TV. They turn Beale into the “Mad Prophet”, and market his rantings as must see TV.
Howard starts getting high on his own supply, however, and his fevered polemics begin to bite the hand that feeds. When the frenzied masses start shouting truth to power, the powers that be must set Howard straight on what the “truth” is.
For all the salacious content in Network, most of the film is spent showing how the sausage is made. Board meetings, contract negotiations, programming decisions: this movie had a very good shot at being very boring. That it is instead riveting is down to two major facets.
The first awards go to the Director and Writer. Sidney Lumet directs a tight ship, managing every aspect of the film to have no fat. It wastes none of Paddy Chayefsky’s powerful script. Each character is plain as day, caricatures bordering on grotesqueries. They combine to make a satire that is ruthless in every aspect of the word.
This setup is delivered perfectly by an all-star cast. This movie had a stunning five actors nominated for Oscars, and three (Peter Finch, Faye Dunaway, and Beatrice Straight) won. In a film where each character gets to deliver a speech that would make Hamlet green with envy, it is remarkable that no one hijacks the film. They are all dutiful cogs in this cynical machine.
They’re Mad as Hell…
Everyone in this film is nuts. They all are blinded by their one, true, god: be it ratings, shareholder profits, or the gaze of a camera. They worship like the Dancing Maniacs of the middle ages. Diane Christensen (Dunaway) is a sociopathic flurry of phone calls and plane trips, programming precursors to reality TV like “The Mao Tse Dung Hour” (where photogenic terrorists perform acts of criminality set to an introduction by a Black Feminist Communist). Robert Duvall plays Frank Hackett, the greedy executive constantly dancing to the tune of his Illuminati inspired Shareholders. Howard Beale gets to utter the iconic phrase, but be assured, everyone is mad as hell.
…And We’re Not Gonna Take it Anymore!
The prevailing hypothesis for why middle aged peasants literally danced themselves to death was that it was a psychogenic mass hysteria fueled by years of poverty, religious persecution, and plague. America in 1975 was its own pressure cooker looking to blow. Watergate, the attempted assassination of Gerald Ford, Vietnam fatigue, economic depression, and televised terrorism had created a society that was dry tinder.
The spark that starts the conflagration might have been Beale’s psychotic break, but the fan that stokes the flame is a media company perverting itself to unfettered capitalism. Sure, the people are angry, but they are still consumers. That someone would finally think to exploit viewer anger for fiscal gain is treated like a foregone conclusion. As Diane succinctly puts it to Howard’s friend and newsroom boss Max: “…I don’t think I’ll listen to any protestations of high standards of journalism when you’re right down on the streets soliciting audiences like the rest of us. Look, all I’m saying is if you’re going to hustle, at least do it right.”
Close but no cigar.
The Network’s undoing comes when Howard begins airing the corporations dirty laundry out in front of his rabid audience. CCA’s attempt to be leveraged by Saudi investors enrages the nationalistic Beale, and he whips his viewers into a frenzy of phone calls and telegrams to the FTC. With billions at stake, the board must deal with Beale. This backfires as well. When the Chairman of the Board (Ned Beatty) “reprograms” Howard’s sermon with a fiery polemic extolling the virtues of cruel, cynical capitalism, it actually sticks. With Howard that is. The audience revolts when it’s pastor preaches that their lives’ worth are nothing more than a rounding error. Ratings tank and we find ourselves back where we began.
The collapse of the cash cow is the one segment of the movie that failed to hit the mark. Frighteningly enough, it’s due to a lack of cynicism from the script, not an excess of it. While Beale is a nationalist, zealous, conspiracy theory whackadoodle, he actually believes his rants. As we’ve seen with Megyn Kelly moving her outrage carnival to the highest bidder and Alex Jones admitting in court that his tin-foil hat rants are just “a persona”, that isn’t true with today’s pundits. When Beale’s new gospel tanks, the CCA Chair won’t let the execs fire him. He likes Howard’s new tune, and is willing to burn cash to hear it preached on TV. The ouster of Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly for bad PR and lost sponsors put the lie to the premise that at the end of the day, ideology trumps profit. Profit IS the ideology.
“Our only job is to hold up the mirror”
Everything else pretty much carries through clear as 1080p liquid crystal. We are in an outrage for profit world: where nationalism, fear, resentment, and ideology are flogged nightly for ratings, money, and political gain.
When this movie was conceived it was satire; a dark, dark comedy, but a comedy nonetheless. Watching it last week, I didn’t see anything to laugh at. This movie is fascinating. It is expertly directed and masterfully acted. I am glad I watched it. But it definitely was an unsettling experience.
If comedy is tragedy plus time, what do we call comedy plus time? Network argues, unfortunately: reality.