It’s undeniable the 24 hour news cycle not only dominates the contemporary media landscape, but also manipulates public opinion. Mark Fraser revisits a classic American film from the second half of the 1970s which provides a possible explanation as to how this peculiar form of entertainment managed to evolve into the cultural colossus that it is today.
By his own admission the late American director Sidney Lumet liked to make movies about vulnerable characters – victims of pressures generated by both internal and external circumstances. He also had a penchant for setting his films in New York City, with a significant portion of his work focusing on some aspect of life in the Big Apple.
Given this, it’s no surprise that one of his crowning achievements – 1976’s acerbic Network – successfully combined these elements as it hilariously lifted the lid on the pressure cooker known as corporate television.
Although the movie would have undoubtedly worked had it been set in any other major US city, its New York backdrop ends up being an integral part of a story in which greed, ruthless ambition, media manipulation, managerial power plays, questionable ethics, urban anxiety and ongoing manifestations of madness and frustration never rest.
The film’s locale, however, plays second fiddle to the dark satire which unfolds within its two hour running time as one of America’s largest TV stations tries to come to grips with – and then take charge of – the changing demands of its current affairs viewers after its market share begins to dwindle.
Set in 1975 at the back end of the Watergate hearings, the US energy crisis and the withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam, Network is a surprisingly prescient critique of the depths television news producers will sink in order to adapt to the whims of their jaded audience, most of whose members are increasingly worried about the ever-growing political and social uncertainties revolving around them.
Moreover, the film explores the machinations of generational change and how standards and loyalties are eroded with every swapping of the guard. In this respect, while Network is not necessarily ageist, it does suggest that with youth comes not only fresh ideas, but also flagrant disrespect.
Based on a screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky, the movie begins as a sort of grim comedy when Union Broadcasting System’s veteran news anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch, who received 1976’s Best Actor Academy Award for this performance), once regarded as a mandarin of the industry, suffers an on-air meltdown after being informed of his imminent sacking.
He’s told of his fate by old friend and UBS news president Max Schumacher (William Holden, the movie’s second Best Actor Oscar nominee), another long term employee under serious threat of becoming a dinosaur as the company looks for ways to cut his department’s ballooning budget.
During the film’s opening scene – in which the middle-aged pair get “properly pissed” – Beale muses about blowing his brains out on the seven o’clock news, the idea being drunkenly embraced by the just-as-bitter Schumacher.
“We could make a series of it,” he jokes. “I love it. Suicides, assassinations, mad bombers, Mafia hitmen, automobile smash-ups – ‘The Death Hour’. A great Sunday night show for the whole family. It’d wipe that fuckin’ Disney right off the air.”
Proving he was not just full of alcohol-fuelled bravado, the next evening Beale calmly announces that he will kill himself during one of his final scheduled broadcasts. Although this prompts the network’s management to give him the immediate boot, the anchorman is allowed a final chance by a reluctant Schumacher to go back on the air the following night to apologise and make a dignified exit. This, however, doesn’t happen – instead Beale simply explains: “I just ran out of bullshit”.
“I don’t have anything going for me,” he unapologetically laments. “I haven’t got any kids. And I was married for 33 years of shrill, shrieking fraud. So I don’t have any bullshit left. I just ran out of it, you see.”
As predicted by Schumacher, Beale’s candour strikes a public chord and his popularity peaks, prompting ruthless UBS entertainment programmer Diane Christensen (Faye Dunaway in another of the film’s Oscar-winning roles – this time for Best Actress) to intervene. Constantly on the lookout for the next hit series, she suggests to station executive Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall) that the corporation put “a manifestly irresponsible man on national television” to articulate the popular rage – an idea which eventually leads to the erstwhile news anchor being given his own evangelical-style talk show.
It’s around this point the story starts to shift gear, momentarily pushing the crazed crusader to one side and, instead, focusing on a bigger picture issue – that being how UBS, under Christensen’s sway, aggressively adapts to a world which is in a constant state of dysfunctional flux by editorialising the news.
Aside from walking over a marginalised Schumacher (despite the fact they have become lovers), she unofficially negotiates with some home grown terrorists to produce a new drama-documentary called The Mao Tse-Tung Hour, which follows the antics of the Ecumenical Liberation Army (a Black Panther-esque outfit based on the real life Symbionese Liberation Army, kidnappers of heiress Patty Hearst back in 1974). In one foul swoop Christensen effectively turns current affairs into popular entertainment.
Thus the stage is set for Network to explore one of its biggest thematic concerns – that being what happens when the new generation of executives pushes the old guard out the door and does whatever it has to in order to maintain market relevance and, more importantly, save its financial hide.
While Christensen’s star brightens, a briefly rejuvenated Beale eventually loses his new-found mojo when it is spelt out to him by chairman of the Communications Corporation of America (UBS’s owners) Arthur Jensen (Ned Beatty, who was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for his work here) that he is not the off-the-wall visionary he likes to think he is, but merely a tiny stitch in a vast global corporate tapestry.
“You are an old man who thinks in terms of nations and peoples,” Jensen says as he reels off one of Network’s key diatribes. “There are no nations. There are no peoples. There are no Russians. There are no Arabs. There are no Third Worlds. There is no West. There is only one holistic system of systems, one vast and immune, interwoven, interacting, multivariate, multinational dominion of dollars. It is the international system of currency which determines the totality of life on this planet.”
In response, the hapless Beale does what he is told and sells out – a move which ultimately costs him his new found appeal. As a result, by Network’s cynical conclusion, he ends up being as redundant as he was at its bleak start.
Meanwhile, on a more melodramatic note, Schumacher starts having serious problems of his own when he finally loses his job and is ostracised from his family after confessing to his long-suffering wife Louise (Beatrice Straight in yet another Oscar-winning performance – this time for Best Supporting Actress) that he is in love with his younger nemesis.
Thus what begins as a comedy of sorts becomes more of a bitter morality tale about betrayal. In this regard, Network has cemented its place as one of the most savage indictments of American news television – and indeed of modern US media culture – ever made, easily outdoing other works like James L Brooks’ rather insipid Broadcast News (1987) and, to a lesser degree, Dan Gilroy’s quite intriguing 2014 creepy thriller Nightcrawler.
Although the movie eventually garnered four Oscars (aside from the above-mentioned acting nods, Chayefsky was also given a gong for his original screenplay), one can’t help feel that perhaps Lumet – who was nominated by the Academy for his direction – should have received one as well.
Apart from extracting top notch performances from the entire cast, his no-nonsense coverage successfully fuses the theatrical with the economic, perfectly capturing the day-to-day life of a major television corporation within the vastly claustrophobic confines of one of the world’s busiest cities.
As seen through the windows of the UBS skyscraper, the downtown Manhattan backdrop is as essential to the visual narrative of Network as the view from Gordon Gekko’s (Michael Douglas) office is in Oliver Stone’s 1987 stock market opus Wall Street. Never is there a moment in the film when Lumet isn’t reminding his audience that, in some way, the whole thing is ultimately about money and power, and the lengths some will go to have it.
Manhattan also plays an important part in one of the movie’s seminal moments, that being when a large number of tenants living in the various apartment blocks surrounding the Schumacher family’s building respond to Beale’s on-air demand to express their frustration by opening their windows and yelling the film’s catchcry: “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”
Like Martin Scorsese’ Taxi Driver which, along with Network, was nominated for Best Picture in 1976 (for some bizarre reason both films and their directors lost to John G Avildsen and his inferior boxing pic Rocky), New York is ultimately portrayed as something of a pressure cooker wherein vulnerable people either go manifestly insane or simply digest the mounting confusion in order to stop themselves from going crazy.
And, as with the Scorsese movie, one of its underlying (and somewhat nihilist) messages is that planned acts of violence can help resolve some unwanted situations. While this may not have been what Beale – as the story’s delirious voice of reason – had in mind when he asks his audience to buck the system, by the end of the broadcast there’s simply no escaping it.
Ultimately, Network purports that chaos, the likes of which underpins daily life in the Big Apple and many places elsewhere across the US, is an essential part of both corporate America’s cultural hegemony and the country’s skewed intellectual disposition. Furthermore, it is arguably the key driver of the 24/7 news cycle.
Grim messages to be sure. Nevertheless they are still totally relevant four decades after the movie first hit the screens.
For this Lumet truly deserves his fair share of credit.
Words by Mark Fraser
Top 10 Films reviewed Network on Blu-ray courtesy of Arrow Video which released the film on Blu-ray in the UK March 23, 2015.
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