Written by Paddy Chayefsky
Directed by Sidney Lumet
Network is a masterpiece. This is true both in the sheer craft of Paddy Chayefsky’s dialogue and structure, but especially for how the themes are blended so perfectly in the narrative. One of my biggest complaints about the film has nothing to do with what we see on screen but with the audience’s popular interpretation. Most people know Network for the famous “I’m Mad As Hell” speech, which leads me to the belief they shut the film off right as the second act starts. The statement has to be viewed in the context of the entire movie and how the words of Howard Beale are used and twisted by institutions in power.
The United Broadcasting Company (UBS) is in last place in ratings across the board. Veteran news anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch) is fired and becomes despondent about the end of his career in broadcasting. With about a week left in his tenure, Beale says he’s going to commit suicide on the air while signing off. The network gets tons of phone calls about this but also notice that the ratings have shot through the roof. The president of the news division, Max Schumacher (William Holden), is approached by Diane Christensen (Faye Dunaway), the head of entertainment programming who wants to create a new program centered around Beale’s growing lunacy.
Beale fashions himself a prophet of the modern age and claims to have been visited by a disembodied voice that anointed him to spread righteous anger through the airwaves. Schumacher tries to stand up for his friend, but even Beale is caught up in the newfound attention he’s been given. Christensen sees how lucrative Beale’s sideshow is and branches out to create new “revolutionary” programming for UBS by seeking out communists and other radicals. She has zero interest in these groups’ actual messages; instead, she sees sensationalism of their actions and the public controversy around them as great for ratings. However, Beale’s message begins to get too close to speaking the actual truth about the structures in power.
Network is not about what a magnificent speaker of truth Beale has become. This is a film about how hegemonic structures inevitably coopt revolutionary messages, water them down, and turn them into passive entertainment. The “Mad as Hell” moment, which is empowering to people, is juxtaposed with Beale’s final monologues where he delivers a new testament. It’s Beale’s meeting with CCA president Jensen (Ned Beatty) that begins the second phase of his ministry. Knowing that his lifelong belief in America and the idea of righteousness is considered a quaint annoyance by the global corporate powers, Beale begins telling his audience about the inevitable corporate future of docility. They no longer have anything to stand up for or believe in because all worries will be pacified enough by an automated faceless corporatocracy.
The story between Schumacher and Christensen turns from business to a sexual affair, I wouldn’t say they are in love. For Schumacher, who is in his fifties, this is a thrilling tryst with a younger woman. For Christensen, this helps her further her interests in expanding power at UBS. She is one of the most complicated characters, a living embodiment of an amoral corporate drive. These characters exist as metaphors for the old system of journalism and the young bright exploitation model moving in on the territory. Chayefsky’s key message here is not that being justifiably angry or supporting radical movements is a bad thing, but that the nature of our systems of media and most importantly their growing entanglement with corporate hegemony has created an environment where every idea is processed and deboned before being presented to the people.
This was a true prophecy about where our media was headed. When you watch cable news, whether it’s Fox, MSNBC, or CNN, you get shouting pundits but no real substance. There are unspoken boundaries about where rhetoric is allowed to go shaped by the owners of the networks and the corporations that advertise on them. The media landscape does not present real radical ideology; instead, they give you talking heads who give you twisted & warped definitions of these concepts. I find it laughable when conservative voices on Fox label President Obama a “socialist” and for anyone that understand what word actually means there’s zero evidence to call the former president that. Corporations have muddied the political waters so severely that they have created fracturing alternate realities so that everyday people who put themselves on different places in the political spectrum are incapable of having actual debate because they cannot even have a basic agreement on what fundamental concepts are real. Watch people’s reactions to video online that objectively shows peaceful protestors being assaulted by rioting police. You will see commenters somehow try to theorize that the protesters sitting cross-legged on the ground were at fault. When presented with objective video proof and you still can’t find common ground, it shows just how savagely corporations have liquified so many people’s minds.
Chayefsky was deeply cynical about people and known to be a constant contrarian. His view was that the encroaching corporate blob dulling out people’s senses was an inevitable event in humanity’s epoch. He saw mass media as more dangerous than any army or atomic bomb, a virus that bore its way into the mind. I think it is essential to differentiate between the internet and television, though. Chayefsky seems to be most angry about the passive nature of television. It is a box that speaks to you, and you sit and consume the rhetoric. There is the initial mass shouting when Beale invokes the people, but that doesn’t continue. Direct action is not part of the model, and therefore people go back to sitting down and applauding at the show. When I look at some of our most popular media platforms, Tik Tok & Twitter specifically, I see youth being active in their rhetoric and public engagement. The scope of the protests in our streets presents us with the idea that the power of the television and our cable news is not having an effect on our children. The ones most focused on suckling at television news are baby boomers and people older than them. I would even say my own generation, Millennials, are too passive and more focused on opiated consumerism. I love how harsh Chayefsky is in his writing, but I must also hold on to the hope that as rotten as we can be at our worst, there is hope that we can be better.