The Lessons of Network in a Post-Modern World

Go ahead, open up the window, stick out your head and say it three times loud: I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore! Doesn't that feel good?

In this time of contagion, those words take on an entirely new meaning from the 1976 Sidney Lumet film, Network, that spawned that archetypal line. That savage roasting of network news organizations and the bitterly commercial cost of information that has bled into the lifeblood of broadcasting was shocking for the way it revealed its monstrous side.

It was the first blockbuster film to be so damning of how TV news really works, how the competition for ratings dollars meant doing almost anything, including, in this case, actual murder. Audiences were stunned at its sheer rawness, TV pundits and newscasters such as Edwin Newman said it could never happen, not in America anyway, and broadcast companies said they had no hidden agenda except to be an agent of good reflecting our great democratic ideals.

Now, where do we stand, some 34 years later? Broadcast companies and their news organizations are just a distaff unit of even larger conglomerates - cable giganotosaurus Comcast owns NBCUniversal, Mickey Mouse's handlers own ABC and ESPN, the shadowy Rupert Murdoch uses Fox as his plaything, some company called National Amusements owns CBS and entertainment producer Viacom. Independent newsmaking is, well, yesterday's news.

And we are all still mad as hell. The coronavirus eats away at our souls and makes us stand up to resist instead of enjoying whatever peaceable existence we once had. We are mad at how a country has turned its back on those in most need of help, the poor and the elderly. We are furious that we can't always trust what we see and read and that the news has become as politicized and polarizing as many Internet memes. We see a slacking away from moral authority and sound judgment and we are left stranded with nothing to do but stick our heads out the window and yell, provided we're more than six feet from the nearest person while opening our mouths.

But, just maybe, we are not alone in this time. Back in 1976, we were in a purportedly more peaceful time when the Vietnam War was finally over and the calming Jimmy Carter was about to ascend to the presidency. Network news was still congratulating itself for helping share the Watergate hearings with the public in a way that led to a presidential resignation. Walter Cronkite and John Chancellor were in their primes and well-respected, and Barbara Walters had become the first female news anchor at ABC.

But then there was the revolutionary movie called Network that smashed the bubble of broadcast journalism. The corporate suits at the UBS Television Network do the demolition work in that film, led by a snake played by Robert Duvall who wants its news division to finally turn a profit instead of merely relying on good stories well told. His aging anchor, Howard Beale, played with drunken fire by Peter Finch, has lost his way and can barely find the news set on a nightly basis.

Duvall's character insists that network boss Max Schumacher, a still-great William Holden in his dotage, fire Beale and go younger. Schumacher refuses to ceremoniously dump his old drinking buddy and is replaced by Diane Christensen, played by Faye Dunaway in a performance that makes those called high strung look like yoga instructors. She can barely sit still long enough to hold a working conversation and instead rattles off rating numbers, demographic figures and other peripheral data like an IBM supercomputer. Or just like a modern analytics department. Diane was far ahead of her time.

This is where Sidney Lumet's Network goes for the jugular. It turns out that Beale is a bit deranged himself in a way that has a cult-like appeal as a sort of mad demigod. He is mad, not just at the way that journalism is changing for the worst but how no one cares anymore. We are just puppets of the network, lapdogs that would rather suck on the teat of sensationalism than really want the truth.

In one of his supposedly last appearances on-air, Beale goes on a harangue, one of many that undercuts his network and the damage that occurs when the bottom line of corporate greed infests network news. His quotes are worth reading on IMBD and elsewhere.

In one, he says, "You're beginning to think that the tube is reality, and that your own lives are unreal. You do whatever the tube tells you! You dress like the tube, you eat like the tube, you raise your children like the tube, you even think like the tube. This is mass madness, you maniacs! In God's name, you people are the real thing!"

And a funny thing happens on the way to retirement. Everyone listens to his rants. He strikes a chord among people tired of being sheep. He is retained by the network, whose ratings skyrocket overnight, ironically while skewering the mouth that feeds him. The network makes money for the first time in eternity. He continues to rave, unbalanced by loved, a lunatic soothsayer of the airwaves.

Finch's character goes beyond frothing about the news -- he takes it to the world stage, calling democracy a sick, dying, decaying political concept. With more shades toward modern critics who wonder about the shape our democracy is in, Beale is all in on the idea that the rich and powerful autocrats will prevail, more than 30 years ago.

In another powerful broadcast, he states that "It's the individual that's finished. It's the single, solitary human being that's finished. It's every single one of your out there that's finished, because this is no longer a nation of independent individuals. It's a nation of some 200-odd million transistorized, deodorized, whiter-than-white, steel-belted bodies, totally unnecessary as human beings and as replaceable as piston rods." Sound familiar? Beale gets the entire U.S. of A. to stick their heads out windows and yell that they can't take it anymore.

The news becomes a giant rave, with fortune tellers and closet kooks appearing on the nightly newscast. Christensen recruits radical terrorist groups to be part of the newscast, shouting their violent warnings about class warfare. The world of the tube has gone crazy.

But it all has to end. The network head (Ned Beatty) is not pleased and puts the wrath of God into Howard Beale's head. Howard soon changes his rants from nightly jeremiads to praises about the value of corporate worth over individualism.

It cannot last. Without giving away the final moments of this important film, Beale reaches the end, but has petered out as a voice of maniacal reason before that happens. Christensen has a short affair with Holden's character, who finally walks out on her after calling her one of Howard's humanoids, indifferent to suffering and joy, riding a wave of banality that television has become.

Is that message still resonant? In some ways, cable news fits that bill more so than the nightly network broadcasts. Fox on the right, MSNBC on the left, others accused on being partial to one side or the other. And many saying outrageous things or perverting the truth to fit their spin (some would say this about Fox News particularly, but you hear the same complaints about CNN and others from those on the right. And this is a movie website, not a political one, so I'll stay out of the fray! Coward!).

But more than anything else, Network speaks to a divided nation that shows no signs of healing, even with a virus should make us drop our differences and work toward a common, unseen enemy. The enemy is us, as Beale would say, and democracy is dying because of it.

But just as Network had no real happy ending, neither did Finch. Before he won the Academy Award that year for best actor in a motion picture, he died suddenly of a heart attack. His award was given posthumously, symbolic of how his character in Network flames out after fulminating for much of the film.

The movie will wear you out, with rat-a-tat dialogue at an edgy network that reminds one of the work of Aaron Sorkin. Network was written by the legendary Paddy Chayefsky, author of many televised dramas and movies such as Marty and Altered States. Chayefsky himself was known to rage in fury like Beale, starting with his opposition to the McCarthy hearings and the red scare in the 1950s. Beale's character was said to have been partly based on Chayefsky's unyielding personality. Sadly, Chayefsky also died young, of cancer at age 58.

But all of us can keep that flame alive by railing from our open windows and balconies. We're not going to take this virus, we're not going to give in to greed, we're mad as hell and going to do whatever we can to protect our individualism, our families, our selves.

#Network #PaddyChayefsky #PeterFinch #WilliamHolden #FayeDunaway


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