Network (1976)

Network (1976) – The following article was originally published on 12ftdwende.com on 29 April 2011.

“I don’t have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. It’s a depression. Everybody’s out of work or scared of losing their job. The dollar buys a nickel’s worth, banks are going bust, shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter. Punks are running wild in the street and there’s nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do, and there’s no end to it. We know the air is unfit to breathe and our food is unfit to eat, and we sit watching our TVs while some local newscaster tells us that today we had fifteen homicides and sixty-three violent crimes, as if that’s the way it’s supposed to be! We know things are bad – worse than bad; they’re crazy! It’s like everything everywhere is going crazy, so we don’t go out anymore. We sit in the house, and slowly the world we are living in is getting smaller, and all we say is, ‘Please, at least leave us alone in our living rooms. Let me have my toaster and my TV and my steel-belted radials and I won’t say anything. Just leave us alone!’ Well, I’m not gonna leave you alone! I want you to get MAD! I don’t want you to protest. I don’t want you to riot – I don’t want you to write to your congressman because I wouldn’t know what to tell you to write. I don’t know what to do about the depression and the inflation and the Russians and the crime in the street. All I know is that first you’ve got to get mad! You’ve got to say, “I’m a human being, goddammit! My life has value!” So, 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 the window, open it, and stick your head out and yell: ‘I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!’” –Howard Beale (played by Peter Finch), Network

The above is one of the best-known movie monologues of all time. It articulated the rage of a generation besieged by a gas crisis, war in Vietnam, a political scandal that brought down a president, and the myriad of other problems facing the citizenry. Network is filled with offhand references to Gerald Ford, OPEC, and other top news topics of 1976 but the substance of the film is as relevant now as it ever was. Year by year, Network grows more and more prophetic. It serves as a poignant critique not only of television but the entire culture that has sprung up around it. This was decades before the wave of “reality television” that sprung up in the 1990s. This was before the twenty-four hour news networks. The film is set in a time when there were only three television networks (with the film being set behind the scenes at a fictitious fourth).

 

The film begins with a matter-of-fact narrator giving us the backstory of Howard Beale (Peter Finch). He is a journalist who worked with Edward R. Murrow and became the network news anchor of UBS. He had a celebrated career but has now been unceremoniously fired by UBS, effective in two weeks. He goes out and gets drunk with his friend and boss Max Schumacher (William Holden). A drunk Howard proposes killing himself on the air (like the real life news anchor Christine Chubbuck), which Max treats as a drunken jest. The next day Howard indeed announces on the air that he plans to commit live suicide one week later. He is pulled, cursing, off the set. In one of my favorite lines of the movie, someone mentions that the network receives over 900 viewer complaints about the strong language.

The timing of this scandal is somewhat less that fortuitous for Max. A hatchet man from UBS’ parent company CCA named Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall) is threatening the autonomy of the news division. He announces at the annual stockholders meeting that the news division (which shows a perpetual monetary loss) will be made more accountable to CCA. Also making waves at UBS is Diana Christiansen (Faye Dunaway). Diana has mandated to her staff that she wants angry shows to help articulate the rage of the viewers. In one scene one her underlings (Conchata Ferrell from Two and a Half Men) pitches her several shows that feature the exact same character descriptions: a “crusty but benign’ mentor figure and a “beautiful and brilliant” heroine. Diana is more interested in a terrorist group called the Ecumenical Liberation Front which has kidnapped an heiress (played by Kathy Cronkite, daughter of Walter) and filmed themselves robbing a bank. Diana’s big idea is a television show revolving around the actions of a terrorist group that starts every week with unsimulated footage.

In an attempt to go out with some dignity, Howard convinces Max to let him go on the air one last time to apologize for his outburst and go out with a measure of dignity. He explains his actions by telling the viewers that he “just ran out of bullshit.” Max, still pissed off by the network restructuring, lets him finish his anti-bullshit speech. Diana is watching the broadcast and has an idea. She talks Frank into folding the news division into the entertainment division so she can take charge of the news. She wants to rebrand Howard as the “mad prophet of the airwaves.” The entire preceding summary takes places within the first half of the movie. It just gets crazier from there.

The parallels to the past thirty years of media are not particularly subtle. Glenn Beck has made a career of lengthy monologues and exhibiting signs of mental illness (whether genuine or calculated is yet to be determined). But the film is not a one-sided attack on the institution of television. Everyone is culpable. Ned Beatty has what could be called a fairly small role (he filmed it all in a day) as the CEO of CCA that embodies the conservatives. Marlene Warfield plays a communist activist on the left. Neither are portrayed in a particular favorable light. Beatty’s memorable scene serves as a chilling illustration of how the world is viewed by the people who really run it. Warfield’s “communist” character ends up bitching to a network lawyer (Lance Henriksen from Aliens) about distribution costs and salary issues from her new TV show. Furthermore the movie points its finger right at you suggesting the viewers are just as, if not more, culpable than the network itself. Diana is a woman raised on television and in one scene she spends a romantic weekend constantly talking about TV even during sex. If this was the Greatest Generation’s critique of the Baby Boomers, than God only knows what writer Paddy Chayefsky would have had to say had he lived to see the Millennials. The film accurately diagnoses a widespread cultural problem. What is the solution? I don’t know but first you’ve got to get mad…

Network was directed by Sidney Lumet, the much-lauded director who passed away earlier this month [April 2011]. In addition to Network he also directed classics like 12 Angry Men, The Fugitive Kind, Fail-Safe, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Murder on the Orient Express, The Wiz, and The Verdict. He was famous for getting great performances out of his actors. Indeed, William Holden and Ned Beatty were nominated for Oscars. Faye Dunaway won Best Actress, Beatrice Straight (who plays Max’s wife) won Best Supporting Actress for only five and a hald minutes of screen time, and Peter Finch won the first (and until Heath Ledger, only) posthumous Oscar for his iconic role as Howard Beale. He directed Al Pacino is two of his most famous roles. He worked with Henry Fonda and Paul Newman. According to many, he even got the best performance of Vin Diesel’s career in his penultimate film Find Me Guilty (still haven’t seen it myself). His final film was 2007’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead with Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke, proving that even in his 80s he could make a damn good movie. He will be missed.

ORIGINAL FACEBOOK MINIREVIEW

This is one of my all-time favorite movies.  Sidney Lumet’s direction of Paddy Chayefsky’s screenplay is top notch on every level. The most interesting thing about Network is that it gets progressively more relevant with every passing year.  What qualified as an over-the-top satire thirty-four years ago is now just one degree shy of documentary realism.  The movies makes you laugh at its satire and weep at its prescience.  William Holden portrays a man of dignity in a world that grows less and less dignified by the second.  Faye Dunaway plays a cold-hearted network executive who gambles with the welfare of a mentally unstable man all in the name of higher ratings.  Ned Beatty, in one of my favorite scenes of the movie, portrays the embodiment of capitalism run amok.  Marleen Warfield plays a self-proclaimed Commie revolutionary whose scenes show the alternative is no better.  But the movie belongs to Peter Finch (the first [and, until 2009, only] actor to posthumously win an Acadamy Award).  His portrayal of troubled news anchor Howard Beale is one of the great acting performances of all time.  The immortal scene in which he screams “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” is just one of the many brilliant moments he has in this movie.  This is a movie that may specifically be about the media, but in reality is about society as a whole… and every second of it is fucking brilliant.

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