Network is among the greatest works of contemporary satire in the past forty years. Its pointed skewering of the multimedia marketplace has only become more accurate with each passing year. In the fictional basic cable network Union Broadcasting System, Oscar winning screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky remarkably predicted the formation and susequent rise of such twenty-four hour news behemoths as MSNBC and Fox News. On both sides of the political divide, Howard Beale (Peter Finch) and his populist rants against the unknowable terror of the universe, as refracted and distorted by network programming executives, has found its outlet in real life in mainstream pundits like Rachel Maddow and Bill O’Reilly.
As UBS news division president Max Schumacher (William Holden) tells his former lover and head of the network’s programming department, Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway), during a particularly volatile peak of the film’s plot, television is “indifferent to suffering, insensitive to joy. All of life is reduced to the common rubble of banality.” Forty years later, such an adage is still true. The late, great American director Sidney Lumet’s vision of America in decline reflects our own world to such an extent that the film grows even more disturbing with each passing year.
The Howard Beale Show offers streamlined paranoia packaged to provoke viewers to the point of apathetic resignation, only to be superseded by the ever more dangerous propaganda machine that is The Mao Tse-Tung Hour. In real life, MSNBC and Fox News serve to scream at one another, creating an echo chamber within which a rapt audience scrabbles for relevance amongst and against one another. Rachel Maddow and Bill O’Reilly speak to their own hermetically isolated camps and collectively stoke the fires of ratings booms, while simultaneously signaling the collapse of civil discourse.
Network is an easily quotable movie, with Howard Beale’s hyperbolic plea, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore,” exploited as a tagline to placate the obedient masses. In the world of UBS and The Howard Beale Show, individual anguish is delegitimized by turning subjective passion into objective dispassion. The revolution is televised in Network as it is in real life, where representatives of political authority displace figures of intellectual leadership. And when those characters prove to become too much of a threat to the status quo, they are assassinated, literally, figuratively, or both.
When Howard Beale initially claims that he is going to kill himself on the air at the very beginning of Network, his colleagues are horrified. Then their initial terror slowly gives way to complacency as the potential for turning Beale’s angry man shtick into a commodity takes hold. Both disturbing and prescient, Beale’s UBS sanctioned talk show of vitriol and rage is conveniently modified as a formula for keeping viewers enthralled, and subsequently too numb to take an real action against the network’s insidious goals and subversive contempt for the consumer.
Lumet’s film is so fine tuned in its prescience that it’s hard to come away from watching the movie without feeling a sense of disorientation and dislocation between the harsh surrealism of the film and our own waking realist nightmare. You could easily substitute The Howard Beale Show for any number of emotionally bankrupt programs currently on the air. Network created reality television and CNN, wherein blind displays of impotent passions fuel a societal stagnancy to take any real action against corporate corruption.
Nevertheless, there is still hope amidst the madness. Forty years later, Network still seeks to wake the slothful consumer up from a slumber indulged by too much bad network programming and a staggering deluge of multimedia content that even screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky couldn’t have possibly predicted in 1976. The current media landscape is growing ever more fragile and fractured with each passing day, and the general public is being forced to reckon with the fact that each and every one of us is living in our very own bubbles of narcisssism and self-congratulatory validation by way of supposedly non-biased news anchors and obviously partisan blogs.
There is little today that isn’t ruled by captilism and greed, and our respective inabilities to see past that has resulted in a schizophrenic national identity. The consequences aren’t always immeditaely obvious, but the results are all around us. Twenty-four hour news cycles and social media platforms have taken the hyperbole of Network and normalized its many horrors. Lumet’s film is a dark satire, but in it’s unsurpassed ability to predict the future it’s hard to laugh at a movie that often feels as though it is offering a mere reflection of ourselves and our own subservience to the soporific effects of consumer culture.
Howard Beale is a tragic hero because his character is still a popular figure on teleivison today. His specific compulsion to tell the truth as he sees it has been repeated over the years in the forms of such iconic political commentators as Glenn Beck and Jon Stewart, whose respective political affiliations aside only serve to further accentuate the pervasive nature of a collective social anger on the world stage. Network offers its lessons via comic cynicism and deadpan performances, and its progeny oftentimes can’t see its own brethren beyond the haze of self-interested populism.
There is little about Network that doesn’t still ring true today, which is why it’s more vital than ever, and always has been. Together we stand and divided we fall, but under the tryanny of basic cable programming we may fall further still as a fractured whole. Lumet’s film demands the viewer’s attention in a way like few other political satires of its era, or any other, and Chayefsky’s original screenplay truly laid the foundations for this great nation of ours in all of its various bipartisan premutations. Howard Beale’s humanitarian plea still rings as honestly as it did forty years ago, but the individuals who respond to it might not always interpret its hyperbole in the same manner, nor see through the shiny packaging that disguises an underlying despair and final defeat.
Featured Image: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer