How can I have made it to be a 42-year-old, so-called cinephile, and yet I have only just watched Network? Lauded by critics, winner of 4 Oscars and nominated for plenty more, directed by Sidney Lumet at the top of his game, with brilliant performances throughout, this is a bona fide classic.
It surprised me even more that this had somehow eluded me until now, as it’s a coruscating commentary on the state of US Television in the 1970s, and an ominous projection of what it could become in the future. There’s not that much to choose between the fictional UBS network of the movie and contemporary stations. This is usually prime territory for what I reckon, and I’m almost ashamed I’ve written posts about the media and journalism in recent months that didn’t reference this film.
Network is perhaps even fresher and more challenging today, as we can see even more clearly what the box in the corner has become.
This review contains clips and spoilers throughout. So if, like me until last week, you haven’t yet seen Network…
I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs.
I want you to get up right now and go to your DVD rental list, or Amazon, or your local library, or wherever you usually go to get films to watch.
Get hold of Network. Watch it.
Then come back and see if you agree with me…
Howard Beale (played by Peter Finch) is a veteran TV newsman whose Ratings are down. On discovering he’s about to be let go, he announces on live TV that he plans to use his last broadcast in a few days to commit suicide. His long-time boss and friend Max Schumacher (played marvellously by William Holden) argues against the executives to allow Howard a dignified withdrawal. But it’s clear that all is not well with Howard’s mind when, instead of apologising the following night, his ranting goes from bad to worse.
At this point, the satire kicks in, as Network exposes the dark, dark heart of corporate television broadcasting. Instead of running away from Beale, they start to exploit him. They’re looking for ‘angry shows’ that could win the Ratings Wars, and he seems perfect: well-known and liked, yet truly, properly angry with the world in a way that seems to connect with people, that needs no audience research.
Indeed, after a day walking the streets in his pyjamas and overcoat, Howard Beale strides into the studio during a live broadcast to deliver one of the most famous speeches in cinema history.
I don’t have to tell you things are bad…
Beale has clearly lost his mind, and his friend Schumacher is horrified, but when it immediately becomes clear that they’re yelling in Baton Rouge, and indeed across the nation, he becomes a pawn of the CCA corporation, who own the UBS Network.
Faye Dunaway plays Diane Christiansen, the rising executive star of the Network, who takes over the News Division with a remit to deliver profitable audience share. And so she creates The Network News Hour, with Sybil the Soothsayer…
Fox News has nothing on this?!
Howard is hauled before the corporate bosses, and in a chilling scene with Ned Beatty’s ‘Mr Jensen’, we are shown the full scope of Network’s attack on the state of The American Dream. Is it just me, or does he provide a template for Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood…?
The world is a business, Mr Beale…
The corporate bosses from this 1970s movie speak the same language as the real bosses in the current documentary series by Adam Curtis, “All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace”.
You are an old man who thinks in terms of nations and peoples. There are no nations; there are no peoples. There are no Russians. There are no Arabs. There are no third worlds. There is no West. There is only one holistic system of systems; one vast, interwoven, interacting, multivaried, multinational dominion of dollars … There is no America; there is no democracy. There is only IBM, and ITT, and AT&T, and DuPont, Dow, Union Carbide, and Exxon.
From here you sense this story can only end in tears, and indeed it does, but there are all sorts of tears…
Network lays bare the dehumanising impact of television. Anonymous audience research is both quoted and ignored as suits the executives’ purposes: people, viewers just don’t seem to matter until they tune in. But even then the Network barely cares if they like what they see, as long as they keep tuning in. Even when the News Hour turns into a bawdy tabloid extravaganza, the audience are mainly silent, expressionless, mute. They move and make sounds only when told to by the studio teams.
Behind the scenes it’s even worse. The corporate board rooms are dark, the executives often shrouded in shadows, faceless. Mr Jensen speaks, and noone responds except to do his bidding.
Faye Dunaway’s character is “television incarnate”. She has the clothes, the glamour, the hair, the power. She has fantastic lines and basks in the adulations of her corporate partners at an Executive Dinner. But she is shown to be utterly soulless, emotionless, almost amoral. Even during sex she’s only thinking about the Ratings, the programming, the next concept.
In a truly biting storyline that elicited laughter from me that was more nervous than anything else, she seeks out another ‘angry show’ by approaching a revolutionary bunch of Communist Terrorists, and asks them to continue committing atrocities, if she can film them as the basis for a new series. Some of the scariest and most hilarious scenes involve the contract negotiations between these radicals and the Network legal teams (really!).
The dehumanising impact of this ‘new’ television is made very personal and very human. Howard Beale does end up being the first man to be killed for bad ratings, but really he is killed for making a hero of the individual against the machine, against the system.
Perhaps even more affecting is the way Max Schumacher, humanist and journalist of great integrity, is sucked into the gravitational pull of Diane Christiansen, like some terrible Death Star. He is obsessed with her, despite being painfully aware of her flaws. He leaves his wife of 25 years in a heartbreaking scene, then leaves Diane months later in something altogether more depressing. He is gone, but Diane (Television incarnate) goes on, unmoved, unaffected, oblivious.
Network is a tremendous film, an important film. It has been criticised for being overwrought and overwritten, and there were moments where it did seem just a little too self-aware, a little too conscious of how important it might be. It won its Oscars in the same year that Taxi Driver was largely overlooked (talk about angry…) and All The President’s Men also exposed the dirty underbelly of American Democracy. Like those other two unhappy explorations of America, I Reckon Network is also a masterpiece, and should be required viewing…