A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Network (Sidney Lumet, 1976)

What everyone remembers about Network is its prescient look at the corruption of American television news. It's not just that the rantings of Howard Beale (Peter Finch) foreshadow the antics of Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and Bill O'Reilly, it's that where once TV news was in the hands of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, trusted and avuncular, it's now dominated by Anderson Cooper and Megyn Kelly, glamorous and glib. But the chief problem is that recalling Network as a satire on television misses its real target: corporate capitalism. What we remember from the film is Beale's "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore," Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway in perhaps her best performance) reaching orgasm at the very thought of improving her network's ratings, and Diana and Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall) conspiring to assassinate Beale after his ratings decline. What we should remember is that Beale's ratings decline because he decides to tell his audiences what he perceives as the truth: that they've become mere pawns in a multinational drive to subsume individuality into corporate identity. The key scene in the film really belongs to Ned Beatty as Arthur Jensen, the head of the Communications Corporation of America, the conglomerate that owns the network and that Beale has disclosed is about to be taken over by a Saudi Arabian conglomerate. In the voice of God, Jensen tells Beale, "There is only one holistic system of systems, one vast and immanent, interwoven, interacting, multivariate, multinational dominion of dollars. Petro-dollars, electro-dollars, multi-dollars, reichmarks, yens, rubles, pounds, and shekels. It is the international system of currency which determines the totality of life on this planet. That is the natural order of things today." But when Beale tries to share this epiphany with his audience, they forsake him. In other words, remembering Network as a satire on television is to mistake the symptom -- the dumbing-down of journalism (and it applies as well to print as to electronic media) -- for the disease: the cancer of corporate greed. The screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky is partly at fault for making Howard Beale and Diana Christensen and the old-fashioned TV news executive Max Schumacher (William Holden) the central figures of the film instead of Jensen. It might have been partly remedied if Jensen had been played by a figure of equal charisma to Finch, Dunaway, and Holden, instead of by Beatty, a likable character actor best known for being violated by mountain men in Deliverance (John Boorman, 1972). (That said, Beatty delivers a terrific performance in his big scene, which deservedly earned him an Oscar nomination.) In the end, Network is really a kind of nihilist satire, not far removed in that regard from Dr. Strangelove (Stanley Kubrick, 1964) in its presentation of a world without alternatives or saviors. It's an entertaining film, with terrific performances, but a depressing one.