Forty-five years ago, I watched a movie that stuck inside my young kid’s consciousness: it was Sidney Lumet’s Network, coming out in 1976 amid other edgy movies like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and All the President’s Men.
Almost a half-century later, the movie’s resonance digs deep, even if the times have changed radically.
This was a time way before cable television, computers, cellphones, internet — the whole lot. You’ve got this fourth-rate TV station, UBS, that’s losing in the Nielsen Ratings battle (remember the Nielsens? Who even cares about those anymore?) because their aging news anchor, Howard Beale (a phenomenal Peter Finch, his last role), is depressed and has become increasingly unbalanced.
Over drinks after work, news head Max (William Holden) tells Howard he’s going to be sacked, so Howard shrugs and jokes that maybe he’ll just announce he’s going to kill himself live on television, as a ratings boost. They laugh it off, but on the following night’s broadcast, Howard does just that. And the people in the control booth don’t bat an eye; they don’t even notice.
Turns out Howard’s breaking crazy is good for ratings; UBS gets a huge viewer increase because of the unpredictable things Howard says live on television.
Little did screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky know what he was prophesizing, 40 years later, with the rise of right- and left-wing pundits on American cable television, talk radio, social media, and a certain orange-haired real estate mogul in the wings who was more than willing to ‘articulate people’s rage.‘
Enter programming head Diana (a nervy, radiant Faye Dunaway) and her boss Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall), who concoct a ratings grabber: let Howard go on TV and spout whatever loony things are on his mind every night at 6 p.m. during the evening news.
Diana spells it out to her staff: “The American people are turning sullen. They’ve been clobbered on all sides by Vietnam, Watergate, inflation, the depression. They’ve turned off, shot up, and they’ve f**ked themselves limp. And nothing helps. Evil still triumphs over all; even sin turned out to be impotent. The whole world seems to be going nuts and flipping off into space like an abandoned balloon. So the American people want somebody to articulate their rage for them. I want angry shows! No more conventional television.”
The most famous bit in the movie has Howard lumbering around the news set, coming on like a possessed prophet on camera, urging people to “get up from your chairs, go to your windows, and shout, ‘I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!’” Cue lightning storms as people shout from their brownstone apartment windows and Max watches it all in bemused horror.
Little did screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky know what he was prophesizing, 40 years later, with the rise of right- and left-wing pundits on American cable television, talk radio, social media, and a certain orange-haired real estate mogul in the wings who was more than willing to “articulate people’s rage.”
Network did come out at a time of deep American cynicism — post-Watergate, amid Congressional hearings on CIA assassinations, rising oil prices (OPEC and Saudi Arabians “purchasing” America are referenced in the script), and political reality TV that included a media heiress named Patty Hearst taking up with a pseudo-radical gang called the Symbionese Liberation Army that staged their own bank heists.
Chayefsky’s script, soaked in all this cynicism until it’s sometimes turgid and over-boiled, nevertheless contains prescient cultural points that make even more sense today. Sure, there are dated pop references — The Six Million Dollar Man, The Mary Tyler Moore Show — but they’re next to thorny questions about the merger of news and entertainment, a merger we’re still living with now.
And it’s all done with a zingy meta flourish, inserting us into this TV world with a craggy white male voiceover narrator and an ice-cold milieu driven by profits, acquisitions and ratings — always ratings.
It’s a speech many of us have held deep down inside, during the previous four years of a ratings-driven TV presidency. Articulated rage with an incarnate, external source. ‘Network’ had sprung to life in the real world, fashionably late like the truest of prophecies.
You might at first think the Howard Beale character is a parallel to Trump, with his TV hair, his constant bellowing on camera, his articulated rage. But actually, Howard is closer to the soul of the movie — a soul that’s been driven insane.
Watch as he tries to break the illusory grip of TV — or social media, or any funhouse mirror that will eventually come down the pike — telling his television followers:
“You’re beginning to believe this illusion we’re spinning here. You’re beginning to think the tube is reality and 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 think like the tube. This is mass madness, you maniacs! In God’s name, you people are the real thing! We’re the illusions! So turn off this goddam set! Turn it off right now! Turn it off and leave it off. Right now, right in the middle of this very sentence I’m speaking now…”
In truth, the one who comes closer to the Orange Man, or at least the zeitgeist of our social media culture, is Diana, the ruthless executive who lives and breathes television and ratings.
Max confronts her, after their brief May-December affair sputters out, and he realizes she has nothing inside of her. Nothing but the desire to gaze and manipulate reality: “It’s too late, Diana. There’s nothing left in you that I can live with. You’re one of Howard’s humanoids, and, if I stay with you, I’ll be destroyed… Like everything you and the institution of television touch is destroyed. You are television incarnate, Diana, indifferent to suffering, insensitive to joy. All of life is reduced to the common rubble of banality. War, murder, death are all the same to you as bottles of beer. The daily business of life is a corrupt comedy. You even shatter the sensations of time and space into split seconds and instant replays. You are madness, Diana, virulent madness, and everything you touch dies with you.”
Overblown, sure. But it’s a speech many of us have held deep down inside, during the previous four years of a ratings-driven TV presidency. Articulated rage with an incarnate, external source. Network had sprung to life in the real world, fashionably late like the truest of prophecies.
Computer graphic by Scott Garceau