Network is kind of a horror movie when you watch it now.
But is it really relevant today? (YES)
Watching Network for the first time in 2017 is an exercise in loathing.
Loathing for myself because I’ve waited this long to watch such an excellent film.
Loathing for the last four decades because no one seems to have learned any of the lessons (literally) screamed from the rooftops.
Most of all, it’s a loathing for the lack of the most important tool people have for personal growth: self-awareness. Speaking for myself, if someone tells me that I say “awesome” a lot, I get very panicky and avoid the word entirely for several months.
But the powers-that-be have zero self-awareness. Network calls out news media point-by-scathing-point, exposing every money-grubbing trick like a peeled back scab. But they haven’t just ignored it all. They’ve barrelled full steam ahead into everything they shouldn’t.
Network is about a fictional TV network called Union Broadcasting System. Howard Beale (Peter Finch), a venerable anchor on the UBS Evening News, learns that he’s being let go. So he announces on the news that on his last broadcast, he’ll be committing suicide.
Ratings go through the roof, and the advertising dollars start rolling in. He’s pulled off the air, but then given the chance to go back on. He then rants about how all of modern society is “bullshit”, and ratings go up again. His rants escalate, until he gets viewers across the country to yell out their window “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!”
Meanwhile, at a much higher level, the network is changing. Rather than being about hard news, sensationalism and entertainment lead the charge. All to make money for investors. Diana Christensen (Fay Dunaway) is head of programming and pushes hard for anything controversial or sensational. So when she jostles her way to being put in charge of the news, she spots an opportunity in the ranting, raving Howard Beale.
It’s easy to spot the relevance of Network to today’s media landscape. And that’s despite it being over 40 years old. While the delivery mechanisms for the news have changed, the issues haven’t. Nor has the black humour, the outrage, or the intent of the (usually) men behind the scenes.
It’s ironic that Howard Beale is known as the “mad prophet of the airwaves” in the movie, as the movie itself is very prophetic. What is CNN but an endless line of shouting Howard Beales, ranting and raving about all of the things that will bring about the collapse of society? You can roll your eyes at Network, say that the satire is too obvious, that the puppet strings of the network execs are visible. But is it really any different today? Like Diana Christensen, CNN President Jeff Zucker cut his teeth on entertainment television.
In between all of the crushing depression, though, there’s a quick-witted and insightful movie. Fay Dunaway is the obvious breakout as Christensen. One my favourite scenes is when Diana is being pitched a bunch of new show ideas. It’s hilarious to hear potential shows — some of which sound familiar, and I’ve probably watched and enjoyed a few — boiled down to one-sentence elevator pitch.
“The Amazon Squad.” The running characters include a crusty-but-benign police lieutenant who’s always getting heat from the commissioner; a hard-nosed, hard-drinking detective who thinks women belong in the kitchen; and the brilliant and beautiful young girl cop who’s fighting the feminist battle on the force.
Every pitch features a character who’s “crusty but benign”.
With corporations, news, advertising, and entertainment intersecting more than ever before, Network should be required viewing for everyone who signs up for a Facebook/Google account or tries to visit a news website. The only downside is that it’ll make accounts easier to hack, because everyone’s passwords for those sites will likely be some variation of “BULLSHIT”.