Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Review: Network (1976)

Network (1976)

Rated R

Score: 5 out of 5

The film Network has often been held up as one of the scariest movies ever made. It's not a horror film, at least not by any normal definition. In fact, it's a comedy more than anything, albeit a very bleak one. Specifically, it is a biting satire that nailed all of the myriad ways in which the television industry and news media would degenerate over the next forty years. Paddy Chayefsky, a veteran TV writer, was working mainly from experience to craft a world in which television news has turned into entertainment, where the drive for profit has squeezed out journalistic and creative integrity, and in which a stark raving mad demagogue without any real ideas beyond incoherent ranting rage is allowed on air by network executives gleeful at the ratings and ad numbers he's bringing in, without realizing what kind of monster they've created.

Huh.

As "just" an entertaining film, Network shines thanks to its swift pace and great cast, led by some of the big heavyweight actors of the '70s. It's a gripping tale about a bunch of people trying to get rich by any means necessary, without any care about the consequences, and slowly revealing their moral bankruptcy to the audience and each other. That's not what made it great, however. Chayefsky knew what he was writing about, and his satirical extrapolation of the future of television, which was once probably impossible to take seriously, can now seem almost quaint after decades of tabloid journalism and reality TV constantly finding new depths to plumb in the quest for ratings. The writing was on the wall even at the time.

Network takes place in the offices and studios of the Union Broadcasting System, or UBS, America's bottom-tier "fourth network" that's struggling to keep its head above water. Its shows are derivative, cookie-cutter flops, and its evening newscast led by Howard Beale (Peter Finch) is in dead last versus their rivals at CBS, NBC, and ABC. In September 1975 (the reference to the second attempt on President Gerald Ford's life pinpoints the exact date), Beale is told at a bar by Max Schumacher (William Holden), the president of UBS' news division and his longtime friend, that his job will be terminated in two weeks due to declining ratings; neither is happy about it. A despondent Beale announces during his newscast the following night that he will kill himself live on air this coming Tuesday, in his last act as UBS' evening news anchor; the network almost fires him then and there, but Schumacher personally intervenes in the hopes of giving Beale a dignified farewell and bringing him back from the brink. Instead, Beale enters a downward spiral that causes ratings to spike, culminating in an epic "mad as hell" rant that must be seen to be believed. When Schumacher tries to return Beale to delivering the news like before, Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway), the head of programming at UBS who's unwilling to give up the network's new golden goose, has Beale's newscast moved to the entertainment division and retooled into The Howard Beale Show, a sensationalist, tabloid commentary program where the "Mad Prophet of the Airwaves" and a handful of other contributors (including a psychic medium that Christensen was friends with) talk/rant about the issues of the day. Christensen also starts carrying on an affair with the married Schumacher, while she, network president Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall), and the rest of UBS' executive board celebrate the success of The Howard Beale Show and their other hits for the 1975-76 season. Before long, however, Beale's rants start to threaten a proposed merger with a Saudi-owned firm that's necessary to save the deep-in-debt UBS, forcing Arthur Jensen (Ned Beatty), the chairman of UBS' parent company, to intervene and put the brakes on Beale. Meanwhile, Schumacher, who had left his wife (Beatrice Straight) to be with Christensen, starts to realize just how cold and callous his new lover is, seeming to care more about the high of her job than about morals, responsibility, or anything else.

This film pulls no punches in how it portrays the television industry. Watching the transformation of UBS is like flipping a switch from the idealized "golden age" of television in the '60s and '70s, with responsible, hard-hitting journalism combined with groundbreaking programs, to The Jerry Springer Show, as the network degenerates into "trash TV" in the span of a single season. Of note here is a subplot involving a new hit show called The Mao Tse-tung Hour, a docudrama chronicling the exploits of a band of leftist guerrillas based on the Symbionese Liberation Army. Today, The Mao Tse-tung Hour would be called a reality show, and much like the stars of any reality show, all ideals slowly fall by the wayside. While the started out hoping to use the show as vehicle to spread their beliefs and bring the revolution into America's living rooms, they slowly turn into Kamo Kardashians until, eventually, the only one who realizes how badly they've sold out is, ironically enough, the rich heiress they kidnapped and brainwashed (a parody of Patty Hearst played by Walter Cronkite's daughter Kathy).

However, Chayefsky is seeking to make a point here: namely, that this transformation was inevitable, and that "trash TV" was there from the beginning. Even in the "good old days" at the start of the film, television is shown to be a machine where ratings are the first and last objective, as demonstrated by the network's willingness to sack a veteran newscaster like Beale simply because of poor ratings instead of asking if there are any other reasons why people aren't watching their news program. Shows are made almost according to a formula, as seen when Christensen reads off a bunch of show pilots that all seem to have the same stock characters, many of whom can still be found on your TV screen in some form or another forty years later. Classic '70s shows like All in the Family, M*A*S*H, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show didn't get made because of artistic integrity, but because the network knew that they'd be moneymakers -- and the environment that brought us this creative boom period came about because of the "rural purge" in the early '70s, which was motivated almost entirely by the pursuit of more lucrative demographics. And the news wasn't so pure, either; even back in the '60s, the golden age of CBS' newsroom ended when their documentary Harvest of Shame caused Coca-Cola to furiously pull their advertising from the network. UBS is portrayed right from the start as a cynical purveyor of utter garbage, the only difference between the beginning of the film and the end being that they've gotten good at it.

And director Sidney Lumet does wonders at bringing this environment to life. The first shot where we see the glitzy set of the redesigned Howard Beale Show does a stunning job illustrating UBS' descent into the lowest common denominator, showing us a world where the news is treated like a three-ring circus better than a thousand words could tell us. He gives Peter Finch, in an Oscar-winning performance, free reign to pack his rants with emotion and raw power, such that I was ready to get out of my chair, open the nearest window, and scream about how I'm as mad as hell even knowing full well that Beale was a nut. The hollowness of Beale's ideology and his lack of any real answers beyond "getting mad" is demonstrated when Arthur Jensen, in a brief yet brilliant performance by Ned Beatty, easily sways him to embracing his globalized, post-national, corporate utopia of the future by delivering an equally powerful and fiery speech in its defense, framed by Lumet with Jensen as an almost godlike figure bellowing down to Beale. Faye Dunaway (who also won an Oscar here) makes for a great ice queen as Diana Christensen, a figure so driven by the business that she can barely form personal relationships beyond empty hookups; it's no wonder that her relationship with William Holden's Max Schumacher never works out. Holden, for his part, does a great job selling Schumacher as one of the only decent people at UBS, in the sense that he's one of the few who recognizes what an utter sack of shit he is as the job destroys his personal life, especially after his wife Louise (Beatrice Straight) forces him to reckon with what he's turned into. The characters are the focus of the film's drama, reflecting and contextualizing the world around them while still being interesting, compelling, well-rounded (if often morally bankrupt) people in their own right.

The Bottom Line:

People often describe Network as a prophecy of how television went crazy in the years that followed. I believe it has a different message: that television was always crazy, and that something like what we saw at the height of the reality TV boom was probably going to happen no matter what. The sting of its satire is the sort that sticks with you for weeks, courtesy of great performances and outstanding writing. Just one word of warning: after watching it, be prepared to stare at a wall for the next fifteen minutes or so as you process it.

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