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Entries in Network [1976] (1)

Saturday
Jun042016

Network (1976)

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!"

One of my most vivid childhood memories involves a bumper sticker that hung in dad’s den, which read, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!” I didn’t really know what it meant, and never thought to ask. My father was a vaguely angry man, so I just assumed he’d picked it up at any of the myriad places he collected the other snarky posters and bawdy novelties that lined his hideaway. Years later, I watched news anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch) scream this line over and over again in Sidney Lumet’s Network, as part of an impassioned on-air plea for his disaffected audience to take control of their withering destinies.

Watching the film recently, it’s scary how prescient writer Paddy Chayefsky’s screenplay was, and how little has changed in the ensuing four decades. Despite complaints from every corner of the socio-political spectrum that today’s problems are somehow uniquely indicative of mankind’s irreversible downward trajectory, there seems to be less interest in actually reversing that course than in finding new ways to complain about it. Chayefsky presaged that, too, in the character of Arthur Jensen, the head of the multinational conglomerate that owns the network that Howard Beale nearly brought down with his crazed call to action.

Let’s rewind the tape. Our gateway into Network’s world is Max Schumacher (William Holden), head of the fictitious Union Broadcast System's News division. After being acquired by the Communications Corporation of America, UBS management became obsessed with revenue, ratings, and sensationalism. Schumacher and best friend Howard Beale are the old guard, remnants of an age in which it was okay that the news was a value-add to the viewer, and not to whatever business owned the network. Schumacher and Beale’s Entertainment Age doppelgangers are a scheming UBS executive named Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall) and the head of network programming, Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway).

Hackett wants Beale and Schumacher sacked as part of CCA’s greater consolidation strategy. Christensen wants to move up in the organization, but her respect for industry vet Schumacher compels her to help him boost the evening news’s ratings by turning Beale into an even bigger spectacle than he already is—soon, his fluke mental breakdown becomes a nightly platform of must-see trainwreck TV.

This brings us back to Mr. Jensen. The heretofore little seen and catatonically composed CCA president erupts into a tantrum, excoriating Beale behind closed doors for publicly spilling the beans on, among other things, a Saudi-backed takeover of CCA (yes, the mega-corporation was about to be devoured by an even bigger corporation). This is Network’s second-most-famous scene, and Ned Beatty delivers a fiery monologue on corporate domination that is at once epically cartoonish and bone-chilling.

That’s an apt description for all of the execs and wannabe-execs in Network. It’s a bit jarring to see Dunaway and Duvall spiral into histrionics when revealing their underhanded ladder-climbing techniques or pitching TV series based on the real-life exploits of Communist bank robbers. But these performances draw distinct lines between what Chayefsky and Lumet must have seen as the attention-deprived and greed-consumed Television Generation and the more reserved, traditional professionals like Schumacher and Beale.

Beale is Network’s whipping boy, wilting spiritually on the front lines as his beloved profession gives way to the whims of a barking-seal audience. The “news” portion of his show vanishes under ungodly harsh lights, stained-glass décor, and rotating platforms that introduce psychics and machines that help him predict, deliver, and interpret current events. He ends every episode in a literal heap, collapsing after channeling whatever cosmic or corporate masters speak their mind through his ragged, disillusioned vessel.

Three-quarters of Network's key components are really effective, but that last quarter nearly sinks Lumet and Chayefsky's project altogether. Toward the end of the film, we move away from Beale's media transcendence and focus on Schumacher's affair with Diana. The screenplay's intentions are noble, and the performances from Holden, Dunaway, and Beatrice Straight (as Schumacher's beleaguered wife, Louise) squeeze as much vigor as possible out of a devastating love triangle. But this is the Access Hollywood portion of the a film, which, until now, had been more like Walter Cronkite by way of Mad Magazine. It's a cushion on which audiences can rest their heads after having their minds blown with all the hard-hitting social satire.

Chayefsky's edge is still evident, especially in Max and Diana's talking-past-each-other interplay. But Max's frustration at Diana's comical inability to love anything but work conflicts with Louise's very real pain at no longer being the hot, young object of her husband's affection. This portion of Network brims with ideas about how sensationalism and advertising can affect us in unexpected ways, but the relationship drama grinds the narrative to a halt in the final half-hour, in service of a storyline that had already been buttoned up in a line from Howard Beale, about his own marriage's "33 years of shrill, shrieking fraud."

I wonder if this softening of Network's initially razor-sharp edge was deliberate on the part of Warner Brothers, or if the film came out precisely as its creators had intended. The conspiracist in me asks if there's any better way to undercut a potentially revolutionary film than by ending on a note of soapy romance and utter despair (Howard Beale's final telecast doubles as CCA's final statement on the efficacy of pop preachers). Network turns rage itself into a product, a winking paean to impotence disguised as an impetus. Like Harrison Bergeron's parents in the closing lines of Kurt Vonnegut's avant-garde media critique, we, too, are lulled back into passivity after an undeniably sound and shocking call to revolution. It's easier to sell movies than movements, I guess. That's true of bumper stickers, too.