An Appreciation – Network
“I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”
It’s scary just how prophetic the film Network (1976) has become when seen in today’s modern age. Both Paddy Chayefsky, who wrote the film, and the great Sidney Lumet, who directed, came from backgrounds in television, but I wonder if they realized just how true to life the film they were making would end up being. The film tells the story of the manipulation and exploitation of a veteran news anchor who has lost control and become fed up with his entire world. He screams at the top of his lungs about the corruption and evil in the world, but it falls on deaf ears. Instead, the very television network he works for uses him as a scandalous clown, a tool to gain more viewers and popularity. In a world of Facebook, Youtube, reality TV and instant news streaming, the film has become more relevant today than it was when it was first released—a warning call against the loss of broadcasting integrity and the rise of unethical sensationalism.
Turn on the television, watch just about any channel for only a few minutes. You can’t help but be exposed to the kind of degradation that this film clearly satires. What do we see almost every day on TV? We see sex, violence, and mayhem. Stories about poor schmucks forced on the air only because of their odd eccentricities, controlled on strings by producers for the sheer entertainment of the masses. Look at The Jerry Springer Show, or any reality TV program where a group of strangers is brought together. The people featured are used simply for the scandalous acts that we eagerly wait for them to perform. We don’t care about who they are or what they have to say; we only care about who sleeps with whom, or when the next violent outburst will be. Much of television today has become a freak show, a circus catering to the lowest common denominator, with audiences eating it all up. And this film predicted it.
This is established early on when, in the beginning of the film, Howard Beale (Peter Finch), a veteran and respected news anchor of the UBS news program, is told by his old friend and producer Max Schumacher (William Holden), that because of poor ratings, he is being forced into early retirement. At first, it seems that Howard, although obviously distraught and disappointed by this decision, remains calm and reserved, even going through the broadcast the very next night as if it were pure routine. But it is this seemingly calm demeanor that catches us by surprise when Howard announces that, in two weeks, he will kill himself on air on his final day. This causes a sensation around the office, with other news divisions gathering around for an update on this story. Howard, now the center of all attention, is ordered by his superiors to go back on air and apologize for his outburst. But instead of doing that, Howard continues, and even amplifies his ravings about being tired, and even angry, about everything that has happened to him, and the state of the world around him. This is surely the ranting of a man who has had a mental breakdown, but at the same time, it results in a sharp incline in the network’s viewer ratings.
This sets off a chain reaction in which we witness the greed and capitalist mentality of almost all the heads of the network become exposed. There are no real good guys in the film, but a group of people all eager to gain the popularity and profit that they’ve strived for, and will do just about anything to attain and maintain that. The key person is Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway), the program coordinator in charge of the lineup of television programs. She is a hardworking, goal-oriented person. Her entire focus is for the network to be number one in the ratings, regardless of what content is actually on air. In an early scene, we see her describe her desire to put on shows that are rebellious and representative of the counter culture of the time, even going to the point of negotiating with the known terrorist group The Ecumenical Liberation Army for a weekly dramatic series.
The other key character is the executive producer Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall). Here is a character that, for a brief moment, questions the honor of giving a crazy mad man his own show, but once he sees the huge return that this “mad prophet” brings back, immediately becomes white in the mouth in his insistence to keep his cash cow on the screen. He becomes mad in his own sense, with how desperately he wants to keep the profits coming in, going so far as to fire any person that may try to question it. Even Max, who we assume at first to be the moral center of the film, can’t help but be infatuated with Diana’s own infatuation with him, starting an affair with the one person who represents everything he stood against. And in the middle of it all is Howard, the sideshow of the film, trying with all his might to tell people to be fed up with how things are, to turn off their televisions and go out and make a change. But he is the spoiler of his own cause: the more he yells the more people will watch. Only when he is no longer angry does he start to lose viewers, forcing the hand of the network to remove their own bizarre creation.
What strikes us first about the film is just how funny it is. Yes, it is a satire, but it is a satire pushed up so far that it dangles near hilarious absurdity. In the beginning of the film, when Howard announces his plans to commit suicide, the program coordinators are so stuck in their daily procedure that they fail to even recognize the outlandish remark that he made. Another funny scene is when the network negotiates with The Ecumenical Liberation Army over distribution rights for their show. The very idea of network representatives in the same room with violent terrorists is funny enough, but the fact that they are working on a business deal makes it even funnier. Try to watch this scene with a straight face when the terrorist leader fires a gun in the middle of the conversation and yells out, “Man, just give her the f$%king overhead clause!”
Then, take Diana, who has a number of funny scenes herself. She becomes so obsessed with her goal of capitalizing on Howard’s success that she can’t talk about his potential without being overwhelmed with excitement. In an early scene where she tries to convince Max to put Howard back on the air, she becomes so ecstatic that what starts out as a normal conversation ends with Diana literally screaming. Her level of pleasure is measured by her level of success on the network. In one of the more memorable scenes of the film, Diana and Max have a romantic getaway with dinner, followed by making love. Their conversation is completely dominated by Diana talking about her plans for the terrorist television program. From the time they have dinner to the moment they consummate their relationship, Diana can’t help talking about work, which contributes more behind her peak of sexual pleasure than the actual physical act of having sex.