Cinematic Century

1976 – Network

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Another week, another incredible lineup of movies from the 1970’s. But, unlike most of the other years I’ve been talking about lately, 1976 had a clear front-runner for me that never really stood up to much competition. I love Network, and I’ve loved Network from the first time I saw it in college, becoming a film that served as a massive foundation in my taste in movies. But, that’s not to say that 1976 was a slouch either. It’s got its fair share of incredible movies, just like damn-near ever year of the 1970’s, which could easily have gotten this spot if not for my deep love of Network. The most obvious choice of the year is probably Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, one of the most influential and seminal films of the decade, but a film that’s never quite connected with me the way that it has with others. I like Scorsese quite a bit, and really love some of his later films, but Taxi Driver ends up being a film that I respect, while not fully loving. Which kind is a similar feeling I have to Rocky, which is almost certainly sacrilegious. The movie can be saddled with its incredibly hit or miss legacy, but standing on its own Rocky is a movie that really deserves the life its had, even if it doesn’t always work for me. We also get to see America’s continuing fascination with paranoia and conspiracy growing in its cinema, especially while watching the Watergate controversy grow more and more dominant on America’s psyche, as wonderfully demonstrated with All the President’s Men, a film that honestly couldn’t feel more timely. Or, going in a slightly less realistic angle, we also have Marathon Man, one of the darkest, tensest, and most genuinely upsetting film of the decade, and one that will make you never look at dentistry the same way. Or, if you’re in for something a little more campy and ridiculous, and have a passion for detective fiction, I couldn’t recommend the oddball Murder by Death enough. I also will take any chance I can to pitch people on one of Mel Brooks’ most overlooked films, the incredibly delightful Silent Movie, which doesn’t get near the respect it deserves. But, none of those films can measure up, in my opinion, with Network, one of the most biting and prophetic satires ever made.

The film began life as an idea by famed screenwriter and playwright Paddy Chayefsky who became interested in the world of broadcast news, especially in relation to the ongoing Watergate scandal. Chayefsky became convinced that American’s were addicted to bad news, to terrible spectacle, and that’s all they really wanted, despite the idea that happy news was their real draw. So, he began visiting several of the major television networks’ offices, learning about the internal drama and politics that make up the news and TV that everyone watches, and generally aren’t aware of. The entire world seemed to fascinate Chayefsky, and he got to work on the script for Network, planning on making a furious and frustrated satire unlike anything people were used to. Which, obviously, made it a little hard for the script to gain much traction. But, Chayefsky eventually teamed up with director Sidney Lumet, and they found a studio in MGM, finally getting to bring their vision to life. And, after considering damn-near every major actor in Hollywood, along with several real-life new anchors, they filled out their cast, and began filming the movie. It was apparently a somewhat rough shoot, particularly on the health of Peter Finch, whose performance would eventually earn him an Oscar, given posthumously after he died of a heart attack shortly after the release of the film. But, despite any on-set drama or frustrations, the film worked. It was a huge success, both critically and commercially, and ended up becoming one of the more popular films of 1976. And, it had serious staying power. The film picked up a few Oscars, but has continued on to grow in film culture, becoming one of the defining films of the 1970’s, and one of the most fascinating cultural artifacts of fascinating decade.

 

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Network follows the last stage of veteran news anchor Howard Beale’s career. He’s an anchor for a nightly news show at UBS, a struggling network that is desperate for rating, and undergoing a takeover from an unfeeling corporate overlord. Beale has put in quite a bit of time at the network, but thanks to low ratings is informed at the beginning of the film that he’s being let go in two weeks. So, with nothing else to keep him from speaking his mind, at the end of his broadcast that night he announces that he’s going to kill himself on live TV at the end of this two weeks. And, understandably, this causes quite a stir. People are aghast, and UBS’s new corporate leader Frank Hackett decides to fire Howard immediately. However, Howard’s friend, and president of the news division, Max Schumacher is able to convince Hackett to give Howard one more night to give a proper farewell. Which Howard uses to tell the world that life is bullshit and pointless. So, it seems like Howard Beale is out of favors. Until an up-and-coming head of the scripted television at UBS, a woman named Diane Christensen, notices that Howard’s insane rants are causing a massive uptick in ratings. She’s convinced that the public wants to watch Howard yell and rant, and offers to work with Schumacher and turn Howard’s news show into a forum to exploit Howard’s fury. Schumacher refuses to turn his friend into a side-show, but does end up starting an affair with Christensen. Which, when comes as a shock to Schumacher when Diane convinces Hackett to move Howard’s show out of Schumacher’s division and into hers. And, with Diane’s influence, Howard is encouraged to be as unhinged as possible, drawing in as many curious viewers as possible.

But, things change one day when Howard wakes up from a deep sleep apparently getting a message from God. He ends up wandering off into the city for the entire day, before returning to UBS right on time for his show, where he finally goes completely off the deep end. Howard rants about how he’s “Mad as hell, and isn’t going to take it anymore,” which ends up becoming a huge phenomena, causing whole swathes of people to yell that phrase out their windows, confirming the appeal that insane Howard has. And, that proof of popularity is all Diane needs to completely change his show, creating the Howard Beale Show, an insane tabloid full of psychics, dirty laundry, and Howard’s rants, complete with catchphrases and a live studio audience. And, with the power of the Howard Beale Show, along with a docuseries she’s created with a real-life left-wing terrorist organization, Diane is becoming more and more important to UBS. And, with her career going in the right direction, she begins pushing her relationship with Max to an even higher degree, to the point that he leaves his wife of 25 years for Diane. Max is still pretty horrified by what’s being done to his old friend, but it seems to be what the people want.

However, UBS’s love affair with Howard hits some rocky ground after Howard makes a startling realization about UBS’ corporate overlord, CCA. It turns out that CCA is in bed with a conglomerate of Arab companies that appear to be taking over America, and Howard has made railing against CCA one of his biggest interests. Which makes Hackett and the rest of the folks before UBS really upset. Things eventually reach the point that Howard is brought in to meet with the mysterious head of CCA, a man named Arthur Jensen. Jensen takes the opportunity to explain to Howard his complex view of the world, basically teaching Howard that there is no longer any real nations or religion, and that corporate structure is the only thing that matters, and by embracing that belief humanity can solve all of its problems. Which, oddly ends up penetrating Howard’s increasingly insane mind. So, Howard begins spending all of his air time ranting to his audience about how the right thing to do for humanity is to embrace a corporate dystopia, and to give up on government. Which, doesn’t go over well. Diane starts to feel quite a bit of pressure as her key program is faltering, and that pressure ends up leading to a big fight with Max, causing him to finally leave Diane and attempt to reconcile with his wife. And, the rating continue to plummet as people increasingly find Howard’s message to be depressing. But, because Howard has become his own personal prophet, Jensen refuses to let Hackett shut down his show. Which, leads Hackett and Diane to come to a troubling conclusion. Diane decides to kill two birds with one stone and get rid of Howard while also increasing the ratings of her show about the far-left terrorists by having said terrorists assassinate Howard live on air. So, while America watches on live television, Howard Beale is shot to death for lousy ratings.

 

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The cinema of the 1970’s, at least the films that have survived in the popular consciousness, has largely been defined by gritty, down to earth dramas. Movies that seemed to reflect reality without any unnecessary flourishes or dramatic effects. Network is not really one of those movies. It does attempt to show the world of network television, and the increasing corporatization of America in a way that few other movies had done up until that point, but it does it in a way that was more palatable to the average person, as a weird satire. A movie about the structure of a corporate television network and the internal politics therein could certainly become a very dry story. But this film succeeded, and left a massive cultural footprint, because by taking that concept and making an incredibly entertaining story. Searing social satires were big during this time period, as the world seemed to be falling apart around everyone. The economy was in the toilet, politics were falling into a place that few could comprehend, and the general mood of the country was angry and paranoid. And this film managed to channel all of that into one brilliantly crafted story, featuring some of the finest performances of the decade. Peter Finch’s manic performance as Harold Beale rightfully earned him that Oscar, but the film really survives thanks to the other primary characters who are able to ground the film in a way that lets Beale’s insanity that much more colorful. And it all comes together to create one of the most intense satires ever made.

But, if you’re familiar with Network, and especially if you’ve watched it recently, you may be aware that it doesn’t really read as a satire anymore. Because nothing about this movie seems too ridiculous anymore. I guess in the 1970’s the idea that the people of America would gladly watch a human being’s slow descent into mental disease was ridiculous, but we all live in a world where that concept is a driving force of a majority of reality television. We live in a world where news has been replaced by entertainment, ethics have been thrown out the window, and people would gladly watch a popular news anchor get assassinated on live television. All without a hint of irony. Because, oddly enough, there’s an expiration date to satire. If a satire is pointed and sharp enough, it’s going to look at the way the present is, and take it to a far extreme, but still an extreme that’s in the realm of possibility. If you go too far you create a farce, and too close it’s just a grim expose on modern times. But, if you have a film like Network that looked at the trends in media at the time and came up with an insane version of reality that was still in the realm of possibility. And, sadly, reality caught up with it. Things could have gone in a different direction, but instead we’ve enacted the world of Network, making it so that this movie can feel a little weird. It’s still funny, but it’s incredibly easy to watch it in a modern context and not realize it’s supposed to be a comedic satire, instead seeing it as an incredibly bleak prediction of the future, making the more broadly funny elements stand out even more. It’s still an amazing movie, but it’s fascinating to have seen it evolve over the years, gradually move away from satire and into the realm of horror.

 

Network was written by Paddy Chayefsky, directed by Sidney Lumet, and released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1976.

 

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