What better time to finally get around to the live-review of Network than now that we’ve decided on a lineup for our seventh annual Winter Marathon – which features three films by the director of Network, Sidney Lumet. It’s kind of hard to believe, but back when Cristeta first presented Network, we hadn’t had even a single Winter Marathon – the idea to watch the three Sergio Leone “Man With No Name” Spaghetti Westerns probably hadn’t even come up yet. Now we’re looking at treading through three Sidney Lumet films spanning 50 years. But before we get there, let’s watch one from pretty much smack-dab in the middle of his career…
Howard Beale was the news anchor for the sputtering UBS network, and after enjoying a great career, his ratings and his marriage fell apart and he was axed. You know, one of those “you’re fired, but can you work another two weeks?” things. So, live on his show, he announces that he’s going to kill himself on air one week from that day. You can imagine the hubbub that creates. Ten-second delay anyone? Anyone?
Howard is immediately taken off air, but convinces his superiors to give him one last on-air farewell. Meanwhile, the forward-looking programming director Diana Christensen is pressing her staff to work up more violence – for instance a show following the actions of a terrorist group – and at the annual stockholders meeting it is announced that the UBS news department is going to be restructured so that it is no longer an independent division – to the complete surprise to the news director Max Schumacher.
So, when Howard is given his final broadcast and he starts talking about how he is “all out of bullshit”, Max allows the broadcast to continue. And the ratings soar. Diana convinces the network to keep Beale on in an editorial role as “an angry prophet denouncing the hypocrisies of our times”. As Diana begins seducing Max (in an explicit effort to take over his news division), Howard begins hearing voices at night and believes he’s their ambassador or truth. I mean, Homebrew is really losing it. But it’s a freakshow, and the ratings are going through the roof.
It culminates in Beale’s famous exhortation to the viewing public to stick their heads out the window and to scream “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!” (and…movie.) People actually do this, which really does speak to the power of suggestion and mob rule. The fired Max Schumacher sticks his head out the window to listen to the cacophony, and sadly shakes his head right along with me.
As Beale becomes a cult persona, Diana heads out to L.A. and gets buddy-buddy with a radical communist group, the Ecumenical Liberation Army, asking them to provide real film of terrorist acts on a weekly basis in exchange for a weekly platform for her political views. Max leaves his wife for Diana (he’ll eventually return, and in his final speech to Diana will personify her as Television itself) as the Mao Tse-Tung Hour beings to take off – and as the rebel communists behind it reveal themselves to be nothing more than rabid capitalists themselves.
But the network clearly has no control over Beale, and his rantings finally take a dark turn as he starts to turn on his own network executives, and on his command they flood the White House with telegrams, forcing the FCC to overturn a deal for selling the network to the Saudis. And so, one of the corporate honchos gets Beale into a conference room and “reprograms” him to take some sort of bizarre pro-capitalism your-life-is-worth-nothing stance. Obviously the audience doesn’t eat this up, and his ratings plunge.
The network is taking a big hit and wants to take him off the air, but the corporate honchos won’t let him off the air. So the network assassinates him on air, using the Ecumenical Liberation Army. The End.
Network is a tough movie. It’s very easy to watch the film and nod your head and say, “Yes, the events being depicted here are both human and ridiculous”. But in the end, it’s hard to root for anybody in the bizarre Cerberus of the corporate execs (anti-state market capitalists whose ideal future appears to be a technocratic socialist utopia), the network execs (profiteering capitalists in bed with the communist underground who are themselves capitalist shills) and the mentally insane conspiracy theorist agitator with his very own TV show being wrestled over by the first two. The politics aren’t confusing, they’re downright confused. It’s basically impossible to follow anybody’s motivation, because nobody seems to have a consistent set of principles.
If nothing else, the film ends up becoming a jeremiad (a $50 word notably used early in the film) against the enterprise of television itself – but even then oughtn’t that naturally extend to other entertainment enterprises like film? Can we really latch onto Beale’s insistence that television is noting but lies and fiction foisted upon the viewer without explicitly thinking “Yeah, but movies too” and naturally falling into the classic “All Cretans are liars” paradox? It’s too bad, because the first half of the film and change is basically internally consistent and entertaining. But for the last 40 minutes, Network pretty much goes off the rails and kills everything good that it did in its first hour. Network won four Oscars, three of them for acting, but lost in the Best Picture race to perhaps the unlikeliest of candidates – a boxing film by basically unknown actor-writer Sylvester Stallone. And I can’t help but think that the blender politics of the last third of the film had a lot to do with that loss.