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Tuesday, May 6, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: Network (1976)

Director: Sidney Lumet
Starring: Faye Dunaway, Peter Finch, William Holden

Seen today, Network resembles a prophesy come true. It presents broadcast news as teetering over a precipice, about to slide the level of national discourse down to the lowest common denominator. Framed as satire at it’s most extreme, the film now seems like a mirror of our own time when the quest for ratings expands the definition of “news” into meaninglessness, and people only matter as much as the rating and share they can win.

It begins with Howard Beale (Peter Finch), a veteran newscaster with “an 8 rating and a 12 share” who has just learned that his final broadcast will come in two weeks. Rather than accept this and slink away into nothing, Howard makes an announcement that he will use his final show to commit suicide on the air. His ratings suddenly go up; people want to see if he’ll actually do it, and the network executives go back and forth on the legal and moral issues of letting Beale go through with his plan. They let him go on the air, but he doesn’t kill himself. Instead, he announces that he’s “run out of bullshit” and gives a brilliantly wrought speech which buys him the opportunity to become the network's "angry man" newscaster. However, the novelty of this new act quickly begins to fade and he’s once again on the verge of being fired. He has a revelation one night and shows up at the studio to make his most famous speech, the one that culminates with him yelling, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” With this he starts a national sensation and the news program is remade to look more like a variety show.

While Beale (and the no-holds-barred performance by Finch, who won a posthumous Oscar for Best Actor) is the center of the story, the point around which the rest of the narrative turns, it's Faye Dunaway and her character Diana Christensen who really own the film. This is a character who not only creates programs for television, but seems to have been created by television herself. She can’t talk unless it’s in network speak, relating everything to ratings and shares and demographics. Her idea of foreplay is to discuss ratings, and her relationship with Max Schumacher (William Holden) is consistently referred to by both as a “script” or a “show.” She’s head of the network’s entertainment division, which is doing so well that she’s being allowed to take over Max’s news division. She has an idea for a show about the Ecumenical Liberation Army (not so loosely based on the real-life Symbionese Liberation Army): “Each week we open with an authentic act of political terrorism taken on the spot, then we go to the drama behind the opening film footage… You’ve got to get the Ecumenicals to bring in that film footage for us. The network can’t deal with them directly; they are, after all, wanted criminals.” It’s reality television taken to the furthest extreme, but given some of the “reality” shows that get put on television now with the expectation that they will entertain us, it does seem sometimes like a show following terrorists is only a season away. Her takeover and merging of the entertainment and news divisions will eventually lead to Beale’s death when he’s assassinated by the terrorist group, who also have a show on the network, jauntily called the Mao Tse Tung Hour.

Dunaway gives a marvellous and finely etched performance which keeps Diana from being simply a robotic extension of the television screen or a caricature. There is humanity in her, however limited it may be (and it becomes more limited with each minute she spends at the network). Her flippant, ironic humor (“I was married for four years and pretended to be happy; and I had six years of analysis, and pretended to be sane. My husband ran off with his boyfriend, and I had an affair with my analyst, who told me I was the worst lay he’d ever had”) is used to distance herself from real-life, and she feels emotions less than she "acts" them out, playing moments in her life as if they were scenes. She's the one who comes up with the way to kill Beale, reasoning also that it will be good publicity for the Mao Tse Tung Hour. By the end of the film, none of the others are human beings to her, just characters, and what happens to them are simply plot points.

There are elements of the film which date it, but the content ultimately keeps Network relevant because we haven’t really moved away from what it is warning against. It is a film that was made thirty-two years ago, but what it is saying speaks as much for today as it did for the year in which it was made. Beale no doubt said it best:

“There is an entire generation that never knew anything that didn’t come out of this tube. This tube is the gospel, the ultimate revelation. This tube can make or break presidents, popes, prime ministers. This tube is the most awesome goddamn propaganda force in the whole godless world and woe is us if it ever falls into the hands of the wrong people… when the 12th largest company in the world controls the most awesome goddamn propaganda force in the whole godless world, who knows what shit will be peddled for truth on this network?”

Words to consider next time you’re watching Fox news.

1 comment:

nick plowman said...

Honestly, "Network" is one of my favourite films of all time, seriously :)