August 22, 2006
“I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it any more!”
Newscaster Howard Beale is mad. Stark raving mad, that is. But don’t tell that to UBS VP of Developement Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway), who sees Beale and his unprecedented Nielsen ratings success as a “full-fledged messiah” for the ailing network. Or to network president Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall), who needs Beale in order to impress his imperious boss, UBS parent company CEO Arthur Jensen (Ned Beatty), who himself has designs on molding Beale’s on-air rants into a propaganda tool for his corporation-centric worldview. Beale’s longtime friend and UBS news division president Max Schumacher voices his opposition to the madness, but what can one man hope to do against the might of a vicious, culture-dominating machine?
These are the characters of director Sidney Lumet’s 1976 satire of the television industry, Network. It is both a howlingly funny and discomfortingly accurate depiction of what Beale calls a “goddamned amusement park,” though one in which the only ride is a gaudily decorated rollercoaster. Christensen’s idea for a new “reality-based” show (“suicides, assassinations, mad bombers, Mafia hitmen, automobile smash-ups: The Death Hour“) seems a logical extension of modern fare like COPS and even much of what passes for news on 24-hour networks such as CNN and Fox News. In an business driven by ratings above all, even the film’s shocking finale doesn’t veer too far outside the realm of possibility.
Originally fired due to failing market share, Beale’s fantastic success comes as he reinvents himself as the “Mad Prophet of the Airwaves”, shouting his message as if to ingrain its contents in his viewers through sheer force of will; his practice of fainting–or perhaps something more, given his questionable physical health–is especially intriguing in light of his claims to have heard “the voice of God” in a dream one night–he delivers his message and then is gone, and it is easy to think that he might never awaken from his slumber under the glare of dozens of dazzlingly brilliant lights. His slickly produced segments only highlight the glitziness of the medium: at first attractive, and then repulsive once we realize how hollow the whole thing is.
In Network, Beale is the only one who realizes this depressing truth, and the people love him for it. He tells them to “get mad” at the injustices and corruptions of society, reject the dictates of “the tube,” and even stop Arab-funded megacorporation CCA from taking over UBS; under its watch, he says, “who knows what shit will be peddled as truth?”
So it is with television: though the great CBS news anchor Edward R. Murrow once famously proclaimed that it could “teach, illuminate, and even inspire,” provided that those in power wish to use it to do so, Network‘s relentlessly negative bent on it banishes those hopeful words as a flight of fancy alighting on the rustling wind of sobering reality. The UBS executives are wizards, spinning their illusions to captivate a clueless public. Cynical though this may sound, network giants ABC, CBS, and NBC, for all their pedigree and claims to integrity, cannot escape the taint and suspicions generated by Mr. Lumet’s superbly constructed criticism.
–D. S. W.