OPINION: What Network (1976) Got Right About 2018
The author Marty Rubin is quoted to have said “What can be labeled, packaged, mass produced is neither truth nor art”. Although this was said after the creation of Sidney Lumet’s 1976 masterpiece Network, the quote perfectly sums up the philosophy and ideas behind Paddy Chayefsky’s perfect and dangerous screenplay. Sidney Lumet as a director has always proven himself to be ahead of the curve to a staggering degree, whether he’s subversively summarizing the political identity of the 1970’s in Dog Day Afternoon (1975), or exploring the complex problems with how class, identity, and conformity have effectively destroyed the foundation of the US legal system, in 12 Angry Men (1957). Network is a testament to Lumet’s talent at capturing the state of society, this time setting his sights on the overwhelming power and dehumanizing abilities of the media. However, what is most fascinating about this forty-two year old film, is how it has predicted the state of the media in 2018, In particular the way in which political evangelicalism has become commonplace and increasingly volatile. While it seems ludicrous enough, one only has to take a look at the current state of political journalism to realise that Chayefsky’s satirical vision for the future of journalism was more fact than fiction, the only thing Chayefsky could not predict, was the dwarfing of Television by way of The Internet.
The film’s main plot focuses on Howard Beale (Peter Finch), a man driven insane by his experience and lack of respect as a US news anchor/journalist. When he is fired from his job it sets in motion events that will lead Beale to become a televised political activist, gathering the entire country’s attention by loudly and aggressively speaking out against the systems that control every average citizen. However his influence is always under the command of those above him, the network always profits and benefits from Beale’s “anti-establishment” preachings. And as Beale continues to outwardly and openly descend into madness, his uncaring masters infect themselves and those around them with greed and dishonesty. However, Howard quickly becomes a non character in the film, rarely being seen outside of his televised rants and almost all of his descent into a messiah like madman taking place off-screen. The true humanity of the film comes from the network and culture built around his preachings. The journeys of Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway), Max Schumacher (William Holden) and Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall), provide the film its humanity (or lack thereof). Max, Beales best friend, struggles to not get sucked into the dangerous moral vacuum of network journalism. Frank, hesitant at first, manages and controls Beale’s programming to safely profit him without allowing the inflammatory rhetoric to impact anything more than ratings and success for the network. And, perhaps the most interesting character, Diana who, while spearheading a new wave in exploitative violence in the news, attempts to connect with Max on a human level but finds herself incapable, instead seeing the world and people as the same fictional and exploitative TV shows she produces. The relationships and struggles of these characters is where the film mostly rests, exploring how greed and survival can poison and turn people toxic, something inhuman and incapable of empathy, the damaging effects on these people is too late, save for Max. Too long have the characters seen human lives as numbers, violence as opportunity for ratings, and suffering as something to be captured and broadcast. These issues with the media the film presents are so clear and iconic that the DNA for this movie can be found in nearly every ‘anti-media’ work since the 1970s, including the works of documentary filmmaker Michael Moore all the way to 2014s Nightcrawler. On top of all of this, what makes Network so relevant now is its portrayal of a new wave of anti-capitalist revolution, one eerily similar to the one we see today.
Beale’s televised preachings represent a deep distaste for the trappings of capitalism, the increased violence and fear that appears on every newspaper, a deep disgust for the bourgeoisie and ruling class, and how every average citizen is trapped in an illusion designed by television. If you have been paying any attention to the recent politics of Western Civilisation you should be able to see some parallels. In these growingly divisive and frustrating times we turn to figureheads, individuals who represent what we wish we could say. While Beale is overtly left wing in his sermons, one only has to change a few lines to reach an Alex Jones broadcast. Beale uses the same inflammatory and rage inducing rhetoric that Gavin McInnes does against feminism. Left Wing Commentators are increasingly growing more hostile to right wing politicians and ideas for the same reasons that Howard Beale does. Politics is no longer a game left for the elderly in suits, its a call to action, everywhere you look someone is trying to tell you what you need to right now and it’s a game seemingly everyone is, or should be, playing.
If you haven't seen the iconic monologue from this film, where Howard Beale first believes he is imbued with some kind of truth telling spirit and delivers a loud inspiring monologue live on the air, then I wholeheartedly recommend it, you can check it out here. This scene alone has so much to say and is executed with such force and power that it's still hard not to feel the desire to get up from your chair and scream the pivotal line: “I'm mad as hell! And I’m not going to take it anymore!”. Although what is so striking about this scene is how everything Beale says is just as true now as it was then, fears of increased violence, full blown corruption, the impending loss of the world as we know it due to climate change, and most chillingly, a deep desire from all of us to just be left alone, to allow all the violence, war and suffering to exist outside but leave us alone in our living room, and let us have our peaceful life. Except Howard isn't going to leave you alone, “I want you to get mad!”. The direct call to action, the ability to put power and revelation into the hearts, minds and hands of the viewer is revolutionary in the satirical world of Network but is commonplace in 2018. Whether it’s The Colbert Report, The Young Turks, or The Daily Show we see this direct relationship between speaker and listener, a trust or perhaps more accurately a deeper understanding between the two. An empathy that is sorely lacking from the cold indifferent world of politics and journalism. However Network never lets us forget that all of this is an illusion.
While Beale is always fully sincere in his teachings he is not without hypocrisy, he is blind to the fact that Frank and Diana find unprecedented success and profit with his programming, undercut by the fact that no matter how anti-capitalist the idea of Howard Beale is, the show is a sinister capitalist product. When fully produced Beale’s show is full of cheesy game show style sets, and characters straight out of a variety show, ‘including the studios own Sybil the Soothsayer’. This extends far enough for Beale to be influenced by a smooth talking (and similarly boisterous) capitalist elite into changing the politics of his sermon, tricking Beale into believing capitalism is some ordained higher power that man needs to be subservient to. It is here where we see the parallels to modern day Right Wing political evangelism. Individuals like Ben Shapiro, Ann Coulter and Candace Owens preach about individual freedom and a higher level of operation through subservience to capitalism and the ruling class. Claiming they are keyed into an idea only the truly gifted and special are allowed to achieve, while in truth it is only the most gullible and malleable who fall into this philosophy, all the while supporting their masters. This is exactly the trap the supposed ‘prophet’ Beale falls into, once a man who despised capitalism and its exploitative elements, now a full blown capitalist movement speaker. His brand of ‘the truth’ is fully commodified, it is labelled, packaged and mass produced, and we already know what Marty Rubin has to say about that. What is possibly most terrifying about watching Network in 2018, is that Chayefsky offers no light at the end of this tunnel, and it becomes clearer the more that you see the parallels between this world and ours, is that it may very well be the case.
Network as a narrative sets its sights on television, and how television, given its lack of difficulty and supposed ‘convenience’, overtook more traditional forms of journalism. The cost of this convenience however is our own susceptibility to being misinformed. How we trust those on screen more than words on a page, and how we are eager to have our news in easy to understand bite sized chunks, but most importantly, how all of this leaves us open to falling into the sinister illusion that the wizard behind the curtain designs for us. Imagine how destructive and dangerous Chayefsky and Lumet's outlooks on television were and compare them to how we feel about The Internet. Every issue put forward in Network is only exacerbated in real life by the awe inspiring power of the internet. It is truly terrifying to see the concerns and fears directed towards a medium that today we consider as old hat. The issues of misinformation, widespread fear mongering, and the commodification of ‘truth’ is now synonymous with journalism, and has become possibly irreversible thanks to the way in which journalism and the media have evolved with the internet. We may very well be living in the nightmare that Chayefsky envisioned, and that terrifying realisation is what makes Network such a powerful and essential film.
Network, in case it didn't make itself clear enough, has a devilishly blackly comic subplot that further underlines this idea of capitalism and the media’s toxic influence. Diana throughout the film has a dream of making a TV show chronicling the exploits of a far left communist extremist group led by freedom fighters; The Great Ahmed Kahn (Arthur Burghardt) and Laureen Hobbs (Marlene Warfield). Diana is openly indifferent to the ideals and arguments of the groups communist rhetoric, calling it ‘mutilated Marxism’. However Diana understands that what is going to sell on TV in the mid 70s, is Violence, and Anti-capitalism. What follows is a surprisingly funny plot seeing a far left extremist group become a group of greedy television entertainers seemingly immediately. Soon enough they are screaming at each other over screen time and broadcasting time slots, even when Beale’s show dips in popularity Maureen angrily laments having her show follow his. One soldier even calls the two fascists, in a brief moment of suspected clarity before, confirming she is still arguing over network jargon. While funny, it’s hard not to feel concerned. Every political activist is in some way fighting for recognition, how far can we trust them to avoid the trappings of the systems they claim to oppose and that we desperately want them to dismantle. How far can we trust that those who claim to fight for our rights, aren't simply tapping into a market demographic hungry for their particular brand of broadcasting, perhaps they were activists once and have transformed into products and mouthpieces of a system that seeks to keep everyone under the illusion that we can eventually win, only after we buy a few more products, a criticism most often directed towards organisations like InfoWars. Similar to the previous issue, Network offers no positive conclusion or resolution, although if your favorite political activist is selling you ‘brain pills’ that’s almost certainly a red flag.
So what do we do from here? As perfect of a prophecy that Network is, it offers no solution, no end in sight, and a pretty bleak summary of the state of 1976, which only gets more bleak when you realize how little has changed since the films creation. This is likely part of the reason the film was adapted into a play in 2017, with Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston playing the role of Howard Beale. It is a story somehow more relevant now than it was in 1976, as its satirical vision for the future of journalism has only proven to be alarmingly ahead of its time. However there may be a silver lining, despite his madness and fragility the spark that ignites the idea of Howard Beale does come from somewhere real and despite all of the copycats and the lies his crusade is one that he and the audience do truly believe in, the same cannot definitively be said for the rogues gallery of similar ‘prophets’ that follow his example (both in the film’s world and ours). Max says that as long as he still feels something for others, the fight is not lost. The answer lies somewhere with us, and the only way we can begin to find a solution is to truly accept the existence of a problem, and to realize that there is an illusion to wake up from. Despite everything there's a clear intention on the part of Lumet and Chayefsky, they don’t have an answer but they want you to wake up regardless, they shout directly to us just as Howard shouts at the camera in one of cinema’s most powerful monologues: “I don't know what to do… All I know is that first, you've got to get mad!”