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Non-Review Review: Network

Network is a compelling condemnation of news television. The black comedy from Sydney Lumet is one of those great movies which actually feels more relevant now (thirty years after it was first released) than it did when it first appeared on the big screen. In particular, while some plot developments are clearly satire, it seems that quite a few moments in the movie seem a lot less ridiculous or fantastical in this day and age than they would have when originally written. It’s a rare movie that can do something like that, and the fact that it’s a lot easier to imagine some of the movie’s jokes coming to pass in this day and age only makes it all the more potent.

Beales appeal...

The movie essentially follows Howard Beale, as played by the great Peter Finch in the only other role to receive a posthumous Academy Award. Beale is recently widowed, and has recently been fired from the newsdesk. Having something akin to a psychotic breakdown (“this is not a psychotic episode,” he insists at one point, “this is a cleansing moment of clarity” – but I’m not convinced), Beale promises to blow his brains out live on next week’s instalment – “that should give the public relations people time to promote the show.” Given the chance to apologise, Beale instead goes off on another psychotic rant about how he “just ran out of bullsh!t.”

Naturally, Beale is a hit with the audience, and the ratings of his show go way up. Analysts suggest Beale is “articulating the popular rage” and might be “a latter day prophet denouncing the hypocrisies of our time.” Other network executives decry his rants and raves on the broadcast as “a pornographic network news show.” One insists, “All I know is that this violates every canon of respectable broadcasting.” However, he doesn’t insist so hard that he gives up his comfortable job or nice salary. Beale is clearly losing his mind, hearing a “voice” (which he initially claims isn’t God, but leader confesses to have seen the face of God) and adopting the mannerisms of a televangelist preacher. And the audience eats it up, giving him fame and power, and giving the network high ratings.

Are we going to see a news Howard Beale?

However, the movie also plays out an interesting debate on the nature of network news, a department which traditionally loses money inside a corporate framework. “Historically, news divisions are expected to lose money,” one executive explains, as he raises the issue of the news department’s “thirty-three million dollar deficit.” There are all sorts of attempts to categorise and classify what Beale is doing as news (“opinion”, for example) as the show seems set to be the most financially successful news broadcast in history. However, in order to manage it and maximise its profitability, the show is handled by the other executives and taken out of control of those who have been running the news division – because they aren’t necessarily interested in returning a profit. “I’m putting the network news show on to programming,” an executive commands, indicating that the show is “news” in name only, it’s being handled as entertainment.

In fairness to Lumet’s film, and I one of the things I genuinely love about it, it doesn’t subscribe to a simple “black & white” philosophy. While the antics of the executives are reprehensible, it isn’t as though the news department is a shining paragon of virtue. “I watched your 6 o’clock news today,” programming manager Diana informs the news director, “it’s straight tabloid.” This a world where news desks and newspapers devote more coverage to celebrities than they do to world affairs. After all, Beale makes any number of front pages, even with everything else going on the world. The news industry isn’t necessarily in a good state, and the film just pushes it a little further out.

How does he preach such a large audience?

The film is also of two minds about Beale himself. He is a raving mad man, wandering like a religious prophet, disappearing and reappearing and speaking with a fiery passion. Some of his points make sense, some articulate truths that we all implicitly understand, but he refuses to accept. However, he’s also clearly unstable, and his truth is not universally accepted. It isn’t the case that the audience is responding to Beale because he tells them what they need to hear – they tune in to hear what they want to hear. Beale quickly finds himself losing his audience when his anger gives way to depressing nihilism. It isn’t as if his logic was any more or less flawed in making these points, or that his underlying position had really changed. “It was a perfectly admissible argument that Howard Beale advanced in the days that followed,” the Narrator explained. “It was, however, also a very depressing one. Nobody particularly cared to hear his life was utterly valueless.” And then his ratings fell.

Indeed, as clever and as relevant as some of Beale’s points may be, especially on the nature of television, the movie shrewdly points out that any argument – no matter how ridiculous – can be given weight and power by using such rhetoric. Jensen, the owner of the company, converts Beale to his “corporate cosmology” by adopting the same passionate style, trying to convince the prophet to change his position on a merger with a large Arab corporation. “You have meddled with the primal forces of nature, Mr. Beale, and I won’t have it! Is that clear?” God, I love Ned Beatty sometimes.

"Im as mad as hell, and Im not going to take this anymore!"

Indeed, the movie is brilliantly self-aware. I especially like the way that Max explains his affair to his wife in terms of television and network practices, or the way that Diana’s sex drive brings to mind the attention span of the MTV generation, easily aroused and demanding instant satisfaction. There’s something very clever about Beale using his rants and raves on television as a platform to attack television, a sign that the movie isn’t taking itself too seriously – after all, this is a movie mocking the entertainment industry. Beale urges his followers to turn off the television in the middle of his rant, something that they obviously aren’t going to do.

There are elements which illustrate how far the film was ahead of its time. Networks capitalising off the mental breakdown of Howard Beale call to mind the recent fiasco with Charlie Sheen, as network news cameras circle like vultures (and Sheen tries to set himself up for a preacher to the masses). More than that, Diana’s suggestions may have seemed ridiculous at the time – “The Mao Tse Sung Hour”, indeed (“I want a show developed based around the activities of a terrorist group”) – but they seem a lot less crazy in the era of reality television. I especially love the way that the movie’s climax features a crossover between the two shows as a tie-in to improve ratings, something that networks have become increasing adept at in recent years.

Will Finch die for our sins? And his ratings?

There are other nice touches. I love, for example, the criticism of the one-hour-drama format which applies to the vast majority of any media that Hollywood produces. “We’ll tell you anything you want to hear; we lie like hell. We’ll tell you that, uh, Kojak always gets the killer, or that nobody ever gets cancer at Archie Bunker’s house, and no matter how much trouble the hero is in, don’t worry, just look at your watch; at the end of the hour he’s going to win. We’ll tell you any sh!t you want to hear. We deal in illusions, man! None of it is true!” There’s also a nice little touch where every show pitched to the network includes a “crusty but benign” authority figure.

Network is a stunningly powerful piece of cinema. It’s dark and hilarious, but also just a little bit terrifying, if only because it simply doesn’t seem quite so outlandish these days.

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