A few weeks ago, we posed a question to the Audiences Everywhere staff: What movie best represents your understanding of America and your experience as an American? The current moment is a complicated moment to live in America, and a bit of introspection and cultural self-evaluation seems in order for everyone. So, starting on July 4th and continuing through the entire month, we will be running essay responses to this inquiry in an attempt to understand who we are as a nation. If you’re interested in participating, send your essay or pitch to firstname.lastname@example.org. Next in the series, a look at Sidney Lumet’s Network and its strange prescience toward contemporary Trumpian American.
Here’s the thing I’d forgotten about Network, the 1976 Paddy Chayefsky-penned, Sidney Lumet-helmed classic: Howard Beale is not the hero. And surely if there’s one thing you remember about it (even if you’ve never actually seen it), it’s “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” the rallying cry around which the disgraced newsman Beale builds a nationwide movement.
And what could go wrong with an anger-driven populist movement led by a charismatic demagogue gone septic in his own wicked brew of hatred and a narcissism borne of sudden, fortuitous relevance?
Network is not the best of America, and it won’t always be relevant. But right now, when things are a little more Kafka than Capra, Network is what we’ve got.
Satire is a term applied broadly and often indiscriminately and Network’s early promotional materials all bill it this way: “Prepare yourself for a perfectly outrageous motion picture!” its poster shouts. ‘Outrageous’ being one of those hyperbolic 70s terms I can remember seeing so often on the descriptions of the era’s salacious paperbacks I’d sometimes unearth as a kid in our basement, and which I would eternally come to associate with “pervy adult stuff.” My childhood prudishness aside, turns out this wasn’t hyperbole. This film is fucking bonkers and the more you re-watch it, the more you can appreciate its intricate satirical architecture.
And Network never hides its structural framework. A voiceover at the start tells you the movie will end with Howard Beale being killed on air for ratings. And you will be skeptical. And you will almost forget about it until it happens, whereupon you’ll think: Shit, I was warned. Every scene in Network furthers this slow accretion of surreality. Stare out into the horizon and by the time you next look for the shore you’ll have drifted much farther than you thought possible.
Here’s how Paddy Chayevsky described the plot: the destruction of a buccaneering independent TV HOTSHOT by surrendering his identity, patriotism and self to the dehumanized multinational conglomerate” — nothing less than “FAUST + MEPHISTOPHELES today.”
He was trying, he later explained, to write a comedy, but “the only joke we have going for us is the idea of ANGER.”
This is the final stanza of a poem about a woman who cares for an injured snake that Donald Trump would often read aloud to crowds on his 2016 campaign stops:
She clutched him to her bosom, “You’re so beautiful,” she cried
“But if I hadn’t brought you in by now you might have died”
She stroked his pretty skin again and kissed and held him tight
Instead of saying thanks, the snake gave her a vicious bite
“Take me in, tender woman
Take me in, for heaven’s sake
Take me in, tender woman,” sighed the snake
“I saved you,” cried the woman
“And you’ve bitten me, but why?
You know your bite is poisonous and now I’m going to die”
“Oh shut up, silly woman,” said the reptile with a grin
“You knew damn well I was a snake before you took me in
“Take me in, tender woman
Take me in, for heaven’s sake
Take me in, tender woman,” sighed the snake
If you wrote a script about a dangerous and deceptive politician and included a scene of him reading this before a cheering crowd, you would rightly be criticized for coming up with something so on the nose. It was right around this time, we might have begun our drift.
When we first meet Diana (Faye Dunaway), the fictional network UBN’s new vice-president of programming, she’s in search of the next breakout hit. Instead every pitch she’s hearing is tired and predictable. Meanwhile, in the same building, veteran newsman Howard Beale is getting word he’s been fired for low ratings after decades in the business. The unscripted rant he delivers on that night’s broadcast ends with the promise of an on-air suicide the next night. He doesn’t follow through, but even the possibility of televised violence gets the viewers watching again. He’s a hit.
Sensing the shift in the viewing audience, Diana wants more. More realism, more anger, more violence. “Authentic acts of political terrorism” are what she asks of her producers and they deliver, connecting her with the leader of a radical black separatist organization to whom she gives a primetime slot behind Beale and her instincts pay off; UBN is the fourth-place network no longer. Diana pulls all this off with the tacit approval of Max Schumacher, head of the network’s News Division (and Howard’s longtime friend). Diana and Max begin an ill-fated romance after Max leaves his wife that could be perceived as incidental to the larger storyline if the fickleness of the pair’s passion and looming disaster of their entanglement weren’t so apparent to the audience, making for a handy side-allegory about TV’s dangerous draw.
In their final argument before parting ways, Max lays some heavy existential blame at Diana’s feet:
“You are television incarnate, Diana. Indifferent to suffering, insensitive to joy. All of life is reduced to the common rubble of humanity. War, murder, death are all the same to you as bottles of beer. The daily business of life is a corrupt comedy. You even shatter the sensations of time into split seconds and instant replays. You are madness, Diana, virulent madness, and everything you touch dies with you.”
As might be expected from a film written by a playwright, one of Network’s most transcendent qualities is the cutting incisiveness of its characters’ monologues. Beale in particular is given permission to go wholly emotionally rogue in his appeals to his audience’s most base instincts.
There’s something magnetic about a person who speaks your truth—even if it’s not the objective truth. To hear your thoughts given weight and breath by another person is validating on a deep level. And as an oratory device, it just works.
Take a look at Beale’s “mad as hell” speech, paired here line by line, with Trump’s words on the 2016 campaign trail:
HB: I don’t have to tell you things are bad.
DJT: We have a situation where we have our inner cities, African-Americans, Hispanics are living in hell because it’s so dangerous. You walk down the street, you get shot.
HB: Everybody knows things are bad.
DJT: The U.S. has become a dumping ground for everybody else’s problems.
HB: It’s a depression.
DJT: It’s a disaster.
HB: Everybody’s out of work or scared of losing their job.
DJT: The unemployment rate is probably 20 percent, but I will tell you, you have some great economists that will tell you it’s a 30, 32. And the highest I’ve heard so far is 42 percent.
HB: The dollar buys a nickel’s worth;
DJT: American households are earning more than $4,000 — think of that — $4,000 less today than they were 16 years ago.
HB: banks are going bust.
DJT: I have so many people, friends of mine, who have nice businesses who can’t borrow money.
HB: shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter;
DJT: I will get rid of gun-free zones on schools, and — you have to — and on military bases. My first day, it gets signed, okay? My first day. There’s no more gun-free zones.
HB: punks are running wild in the street,
DJT: Our great African-American President hasn’t exactly had a positive impact on the thugs who are so happily and openly destroying Baltimore.
HB: and there’s nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do, and there’s no end to it.
DJT: No one knows the system better than me
It’s painful to note how prescient this film was, but credit where credit’s due, I guess.
The meaning of populism is a tricky one, in part because, as Cas Mudde, a professor at the University of Georgia explained in an interview with The Atlantic earlier this year, it’s a “thin ideology.” It doesn’t address all the cultural, geopolitical, and ideological aspects of a society because it can’t. That’s not its job. To my mind, populism exists in practice—at least in our current landscape—as a downright reactionary ideology and Network offers up plenty of corollaries to an America 40 years in the future.
The film tells the story of a network-created monster it loses the ability to control or influence. Meanwhile FOX News scrambles to find meaning in madness it can make palatable to its viewers. Similarly, we’re now in the position of being not just viewers or, but participants in media beefs. In Network, all the internal squabbling over Beale’s behavior stayed behind boardroom doors, but now viewers expect—and seem to want—a place at that table. No matter your ideology, you have preferences you exercise and an opinion about many news outlets you might not have held before this election. Note the reactions that come up as you read the names FOX, MSNBC, CNN, The New York Times, Breitbart. It’s no accident you feel a twinge of something, whether disdain or respect, when you read them. You’ve been conscripted into the media wars.
For a word that sounds so egalitarian, the rhetoric populist speakers sometimes employ can take on a sinister tone. Compare Beale’s entreaty to “fight for your heritage” with Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan. Both harken back to a time when things were better (for some), and its implications are easily read by the people for whom the message is intended.
Other times, though, a dog whistle isn’t necessary, particularly in situations where bigotry is normalized. One of Beale’s most rabid tangents was about the many instances where “[Arabs] are simply buying us.” Setting aside the veracity of that claim in 1976, note that Beale doesn’t explain why that’s bad because he’s speaking to an audience that has already internalized that fear.
And while the modern messaging may have shifted (now with glowing orb!) from the Arab world to one that instead largely encompasses the Islamic one, we intuitively know why it was always Barack Hussein Obama.
No translation of the message required.
The unseen compass of Network is its screenwriter, Paddy Chayefsky. The prolific playwright, screenwriter and three-time Academy Award winner was a TV writer early on in his career, during the medium’s Golden Era. Chayefsky did stints as a writer for crime dramas, but broke through with the bittersweet Marty, later turned into a film, for which he won his first gold statue. Later, he found even greater success on Broadway, even as it became apparent the tastes of the television audience were evolving.
But it was film that offered Chayefsky the chance to tackle meatier subjects, which he did—earning two more Oscars in the process. In Network, released just five years before his death, Chayefsky got to visit his old stomping grounds and he didn’t particularly like what he had to see, though ultimately his condemnation of the medium is lesser than his rebuke of its audience. This discrepancy is one of the great misunderstandings of the film. It’s not really about TV more than it is any other industry, or even industry at all, but about the behavior of people en masse—and in the privacy of their homes. It’s not really about graphic violence, but about the human impulse to telekinetically transmit destruction and then to guiltlessly bear witness. It’s the viewer who only watches racing for the crashes and hockey for the fights. It’s us.
Perhaps this murkiness is why Chayefsky himself began to lose some his creative sightlines. In his personal notes about the film, he says:
“I guess what bothers me is that the picture seems to have no ultimate statement beyond the idea that a network would kill for ratings,” and “We are making some kind of statement about American society, and its lack of clarity is what’s bothering me.”
In a 2011 article that took a close look at Chayefsky’s notes from this time, the New York Times spoke with a few figures who might have unusual insight into the film’s influence. Stephen Colbert, then still deeply embedded nightly in his blustery, conservative alter ego on the Colbert Report described the film’s Beale as “a precursor of people who are telling you how you feel.”
It’s noteworthy that the film’s memorable salvo “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore”—itself even slightly different from the exact words Beale used on air—isn’t actually the call to arms it at first seems. What happens once we let the world now how mad we are? We’ll work that out later. The trouble with that is that the fiery emotion itself suffers from diminishing returns if it’s not stoked by action.
Beale never recognized this, but the people in charge behind the scenes did. Figureheads can build a movement but, once the movement is self-sustaining, they become replaceable. Beale’s obsolescence was present even at the height of his demagoguery—the two are designed to co-exist.
Unfortunately there’s little solace even in Trump’s eventual downfall. The rift that opened to let this anger escape can be closed, but the emotion lingers.
In his final, mad speech before his assassination, Beale says of television: “We’re in the boredom killing business!” Seconds later, he becomes the victim of this same deadly impulse. There was a time when the idea of a Trump presidency was an entertaining diversion to some. We’re not bored anymore, but we still fight our old fears. Once boredom has been killed, what’s the next sacrifice?
Of the sometimes-truths Beale spoke in the film, this is the most gutting: “The whole world is becoming humanoid—creatures that look human, but aren’t. The whole world, not just us.” I can’t agree with the cynicism of this (why get out of bed in the morning if that were the case?), but I can see a kind of bleak logic in it. Though I’d argue it’s not so much that we’re becoming humanoid, it’s that we’re seeing others as inhuman. A popular t-shirt on the 2016 campaign trail read “Fuck your feelings.” OK. What do I do then? Maybe I’d be less offended if I felt like the people who wore those t-shirts had any answers. Instead I find myself increasingly terrified because I don’t know what to do in the face of this kind of indiscriminate rage. I don’t know how to get into those crevices of our collective psyche that reason can’t reach.
Earlier, when Beale was discussing us all becoming humanoid, I cut the quote off too early. Here’s how it ends: “We’re just the most advanced country, so we’re getting there first.”
Featured Image: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer