Network (1976)

Directed by Sydney Lumet


I found Network to be more disturbing than either Rosemary’s Baby or The Deer Hunter.  If you haven’t seen those two films, one involves a woman forced to give birth to the devil, and the other involves a bunch of people shooting themselves.

I think there is an idea that both of those films are separated from our reality.  Rosemary’s Baby is distinctly horrifying but in some ways silly, and while The Deer Hunter is about the effect of The Vietnam War, it feels contained to these few characters we meet in the story, even if the horror is symbolic for how an entire nation felt at the time.

But with Network, there’s a sense that we are all subservient to the horrors and powers that be in this film.  Everything is manufactured, and no one matters.  This film is meta on some levels, referencing the way television stories and movies work, and in the end the film felt incredibly vast, like it’s leaking into our own bloodstreams, and yet highly contained, like none of it made a difference.  In that way it feels like Sydney Lumet’s film brings up a number of issues about our own world and then shuts them all down as if to say that nothing we do will impact anything, and that’s that.  It’s pessimistic in the way Easy Rider is pessimistic about the way a civilized America will approach (or did approach) the counter-culture movement.

But Easy Rider feels like it was addressing a relatively new issue, and Network feels like a carefully-curated investigation into the way people, media and power works and has worked over the course of many years.  It’s like Moses coming down with his ten commandments to a long-waiting and excited crowd, but then, after years away, the first thing he does is sigh.

And that’s how this film feels, like a sigh, which is strange because so much happens.  There is the threat of violence, then violence, and in the middle there is an affair, another death and heavy monologue after heavy monologue, enough to satiate any hungry actor.  Seriously, this is an actor’s film if ever there was one.  Every character seemed to have his or her moment.  Network was nominated for, I believe, 5 acting awards at the Academy Awards, and Ned Beatty was nominated for only one day of work.

The performances in this film are pretty incredible because the story collapses if they don’t work.  I suppose you might say that about any good film, but there were so many crucial moments that unfolded in one on one conversations, like they were physical brawls.  It felt like there was more boxing in this movie than there was in Rocky.  You could get a real sense of what was at stake and observe the verbal sparring between two characters.  So much of this film is person to person, yet the story is really abut the masses.

In some ways this feels like a medieval fight for power among people aiming to become king.  In those stories, though, the governed rarely matter.  Think of Game of Thrones, where you have a bloody lust for power, but there is never any focus given to the peasants who have to deal with a given ruler’s wrath.  Network focuses on people in power (in the network), but it gives focus to the people who are powerless.  This may only be because Howard Beale (Peter Finch) is a central character, and his tactic is to appeal directly to the audience.  The more I think about it, maybe it’s not about the people, because they come and go very quickly, and the story is ultimately still about the people in power.

Howard is a news anchor in the twilight of his career.  One night, during his broadcast, he announces his plans to shoot his brains out on live television.  This causes a media frenzy, and he is all anyone can talk about it.  When Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway), a director of fictional network UBS’ programming, takes control of the weapon that is Howard, he becomes a sensation, preaching to the audience on his new show, The Howard Beale Show.

Howard’s message quickly goes from pained and earnest to tacky and sponsored.  He is given a large set and his own show.  His message is still sincere, but decorated as it is like a late night variety show, it feels co-opted, and that’s because it is.

The network doesn’t care about Howard.  He knows that once he has left the anchor’s chair, his life is over.  There is a brief narration at the beginning of the film that tells us how Howard’s life has fallen apart.  When he declares his intention to commit public suicide, it’s because he recognizes the narrow gap between him and nothingness.  He thinks he is nothing or about to become nothing.  Howard’s friend and coworker, Max Schumacher (William Holden) has similar feelings, but he expresses them in a much better way, through intimacy.  Granted, this intimacy is in the form of an affair with Diana, a young upstart who makes clear her devotion to the ratings and nothing more.

Max tells her, when their affair ends, that when he’s gone, there will be nothing acting as a barrier between her and the vast nothingness of existential dread.  The next time we see Diana after their breakup, she is helping plot the assassination of Howard on live television.

I bring up Max because he makes a comment about working on his memoirs following his firing from the network.  He then says something about how every news person forced into retirement makes the same damn book.  Max realizes he isn’t unique and he is completely replaceable, which is why he was replaced.  He and Howard are almost completely identical.

Even as Howard’s show becomes more and more popular, there remains nothing special about him.  When Howard is ultimately killed, it’s because he serves no value to the network (whose president wishes to keep him on the air, forcing Diana and company to come up with their new plan).  The network is committed only to the ratings and the money.

Howard goes on rants about everything, including the travesty of television.  He tells everyone to turn off the tv because everything “we” say (he includes himself) is bullshit.  Of course, people don’t turn off the tv.  They just keep watching.  Howard doesn’t even begin to rock the boat until he exposes what’s going on behind an expensive deal between UBS and a group of Saudi Arabians.  Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall), one of the higher ups at the network, loses his mind and would have Howard replaced except that network president Arthur Jensen (Ned Beatty) chooses to keep Howard on the air, albeit only after he meets with the “prophet” and tells him how the world really works.  His speech, boiled down, is that money rules everything.  There is no America, no nations, just money and corporations.  Howard appears struck by this as if he is Moses hearing the voice of God.

From then on, Howard begins preaching about how we don’t matter on an individual level.  We can’t do anything to affect anything, and money rules all.  His ratings start to slip.  It turns out people only want to hear the truth when there is something they can do to change it.  When Howard tells them there is no letter they can write, no petition they can sign, they simply tune out.

Howard becomes an anchor, holding the network down, much as he was at the beginning of the film.  When Jensen, happy that Howard is telling it how it is, says Howard must not be replaced, Diana and Frank and a few others organize Howard’s assassination as if it’s just another live programming event.  On his next broadcast, Howard is shot multiple times by two people from the Ecumenical Liberation Army (with whom Diana was working on a show to capitalize on the popular counter-culture movement) in a watered-down Bonny & Clyde type moment.

The most striking image of the film is after he is shot, when the camera pushes in on his dead body, showing how orchestrated the whole event was.  On another news broadcast we hear the copy read aloud of Howard’s death.  This includes a highlight reel of the violent shooting, shot and cut like a film for entertainment.  We don’t simply see Howard walk out onstage, get shot and die.  Instead we see shots of the two gunmen standing and firing, intercut with Howard’s body dissolving in gunfire.  It’s all about media manipulation, and it makes you question if anything is authentic anymore.

Howard is mentally unstable on some level.  His friend, Max, knows this and wants to get him help, but of course the network is reluctant to change anything that’s “working.”  The only God is money, and when Howard is rolling, they get a lot of money.  He seems like the only earnest character in the film, however, and we only know that because of how mad he is.  On one hand, I want to think that Howard pulled this stunt because he knew it was a stunt, a chance to get higher ratings.  But we see him lie awake at night, talking to a voice that isn’t there.  He feels this to his core, so there is no bullshit left in his head.  He is discovered and then promptly repackaged, like if a studio found a boy raised by wolves in the wild and then when they send him out to make the tv late show rounds, he already looks like Justin Bieber.

The network is a machine that chews you up and spits you out.  It spits out Howard and Max and eventually will get Diana.  She is a shell of herself in the end, coldly discussing murder with no real second thoughts.  In most movies, characters become more and more complex and developed as the story goes on and we get to know them.  In some ways, Diana becomes less complex and less developed.  She wastes away while other characters gain momentum, becoming their fully-formed selves.

There have been a few screw ups on live television recently, including Steve Harvey’s Miss America gaffe as well as an almost identical mistake on the most recent Academy Awards.  These moments feel unscripted, and perhaps they are, but there are people who think they’re staged in an effort to get ratings.  Most programs can be viewed after the fact, whether online or on a DVR.  And there’s no need to watch a live event (except maybe sports) because you can read about the happenings later on.  But when you broadcast what appears to be a huge mistake, it becomes a talking point, and it adds focus to your program.  In discussing the Oscars, people talked about the La La Land/Moonlight slip up more than they discussed anything else.  These moments are for pure entertainment and whether orchestrated or not, they drown out anything else that may be of substance.

The network, in this film, is presented as some kind of mind-control organization, but it’s somehow worse than mind control, because they’re responding to the audience.  Diana wants to make a program featuring the Ecumenical Liberation Army not because their cause matters to her, as you might first suspect, but because it’s what people want.  The tv industry takes what you want and repackages it so you think you’re getting what you want. This, of course, is a pessimistic view of the world, and I don’t think it’s quite so bad today. That being said, my thinking it’s not so bad might also be a sign that it is bad.  Their mind-control is working.

So who knows.

What I do know is that there is a lot of trash on television, but I think it’s okay.  I believe we should demand quality from programs that promise quality.  If you know you’re watching trash, then it’s okay that it’s trash.  It’s like watching Sixteen and Pregnant because you just want a break from the world.  I think that’s better than watching The Walking Dead and thinking it has anything to say about the world.  That’s also just because I really don’t like The Walking Dead anymore.  That show takes itself way too seriously and doesn’t really offer anything in return.  TWD is the swiss cheese of tv shows.  There’s more staring, breathing, gazing and terrible exposition than there is any character development or even plot progression.  It’s full of placeholder episodes.

Anyways, that’s beside the point, or maybe it’s not, I don’t know.

I’m having trouble writing about Network because it feels like anything I write will be immediately consumed by the blob which is the world we live in and which this film references and even admits to being a part of.  Max makes several comparisons between real life and television and movies.  At one point he tells his wife, after revealing his affair, that they’re just going through the normal act 2 strife, and he will eventually end up with her in the end.  Though we don’t see their reunion, he does leave Diana, and it’s easy to assume he gets back together with his wife.

So this film is meta in a way that’s difficult to talk about, different from the meta quality of a movie like 22 Jump Street.  I feel like the world depicted in this film is real, and it’s certainly troubling.


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