Don’t get mad – get a News Show.
A washed-up newscaster (Peter Finch) is about to be fired from a television network for being over the hill and losing ratings. Until he does something that shocks the network executives, forces the viewing public to take notice, and rockets his ratings. He starts telling the truth.
Sidney Lumet‘s NETWORK is a cynic’s wet dream, a conspiracy theorist’s lollipop, a clandestine corporation’s profit-mare. It is a prescient harbinger of reality TV, news as entertainment, and the almighty corporation replacing nation states as the driving force behind goddam everything.
It would be a satire on how television media is a manipulative force – if it wasn’t truth.
Peter Finch in one of his primo roles as Howard Beale, “the mad prophet of the airwaves” who announces one night on camera in his final week, that he will “blow his brains out on air next week.” And all Nielsen breaks loose. Ratings go through the roof, and Howard gets his own slot to rant about being “tired of all the bullshit.” Soon Howard really does become touched by some angel of madness, precipitating the iconic scene of him in a trenchcoat-over-pyjamas, rain-sogged, voice haggard, inveighing his TV audience to “get up out of your chairs, go to the window and stick your head out and yell, ‘I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!'”
William Holden is Max Schumacher, Howard’s best friend and program director (a terrific actor, but just can’t play an authentic drunk); network execs are William Prince (Dick Cheney doppelganger), Wesley Addy (John Kerry doppelganger) and Robert Duvall as Hackett, the nervy, shouty network head. Faye Dunaway is Diana Christensen, an ambitious ratings whore who never wears bras, bouncing those tennis balls before a grass court serve, and bouncing her ferocious personality into the corridors of power. Ned Beatty is Jensen, the network’s overlord, who does a Howard Beale back at Howard Beale in a darkly comedic rant that connects all things back to humanity suckling at the black teat of corporate embrace.
Dialogue is simply outstanding, intelligent, literate, for adult consumption; Paddy Chayefsky wrote NETWORK specifically for the screen, and the dialogue is reminiscent of a Woody Allen piece, but unlike Allen (who also writes his words for smart characters), the dialogue here rarely sounds didactic. It is often introspective, self-loathsome and self-aware, as when Max gives play-by-play outlines of the fates of the characters, he reducing their real lives to tropes in a B-movie. The only annoyance is a Narrator (Lee Richardson) that sounds like Paul Frees doing Rocky and Bullwinkle. Very off-putting. If anything, William Holden’s Max should have done this voiceover.
Throughout a montage scene we don’t know whether to laugh or cry or lose our erections, as Max and Diana consummate their affair on a date. She constantly yaps about network business while he participates in the date without making a sound: while he has dinner, or runs along the beach with her, holds hands, undresses and actually enters her, she never stops talking! The pointed gag of this montage is that all Diana’s talking fits the mood of each scene; at dinner while she kisses Max’s fingers, she is speaking sotto voce like a tender lover – yet the content of her talk is about market shares and programming; when she is running along the beach, her voice is excited and animated – but she is speaking about FBI investigations at the network. Again, it would be a highly amusing satire – if it weren’t annoying truth. (Ladies, know when to stop talking!)
We might feel that only during the advent of Mitt Romney’s avaricious grab at the American presidency in 2012 has it become painfully apparent that corporations are running the world and buying the presidency. But way back in 1976, it was well known by educated people (like these filmmakers) that there was “no America, no democracy – there is only AT&T, DuPont, IBM…” This concept would surface in other media through the years (WALL STREET, GROSSE POINTE BLANK, SYRIANA, WAR, INC.) and though it is oft-times dismissed as dissident conspiracy theory, the messages in NETWORK resonate through the ages because what appears in the media has already attached itself to the spine of society:
Max accuses Diana of being “television incarnate” callous, shallow, everything from war to puppies is merely to be slotted into its place for maximum viewership and advertising potential. Translate that to current news programs more concerned with “entertaining” their viewership than journalistic integrity.
Diana wants to turn actual insurrectionist footage (a rebel group’s bank robberies, hijacks and kidnappings) into a reality show. Translate that to Caught On Camera or To Catch A Predator where robberies, hijackings and sexual predation are the order of entertainment.
Howard tells people to send telegrams to the White House to curtail the Arab takeover. Translate that to the grass roots Occupy Movement trying to stop Wall Street buying the White House.
Howard’s own show has shades of A FACE IN THE CROWD, Glenn Beck, Noam Chomsky, Keith Olbermann, Dennis Miller…
Duvall is outraged that Howard would spill the beans on the backroom deal, screaming, “Two million dollars isn’t chickenfeed – that’s the wrath of God!” Translate that to the movie STATE OF PLAY when a contractor squeals on backroom Arab deals and “wrath of god” money.
And the very fact that back in the ’70s banks were selling their country to the Arabs through secret corporate deals; translate that, well, translate that to exactly what’s happening today.
Eventually Howard is consumed and spat out by the very corporate entities that he rails against. After the darkroom meeting with Jensen, he actually does speak a deeper truth about democracy being “a sick decaying political concept.” And here is the irony, maybe a “You Can’t Handle The Truth” moment: when Howard calms down his ranting to tell this most horrifying of truths – the total usurpation of individual freedoms – his ratings go down. “America isn’t finished – what is finished is the idea of individuals flourishing. It’s the single solitary human being that’s finished. It’s every single one of you out there that’s finished!” Translate that to the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling that corporations can funnel unlimited amounts of money to political campaigns.
And the death of America is complete. Someone give Paddy Chayefsky a cigar. And a News Show.