A number of films are given the tag of “prophetic” or “prescient”, but 1976’s Network is one of the most chillingly prescient products of modern cinema.
Nearly 40 years on, Sidney Lumet’s powerful document of madness, greed and the intricacies of human relationships is as fresh, outrageous and memorable as it was upon its initial release. It’s most famous refrain, “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”, is still a form of clarion call for this disaffected and disenfranchised.
Network is the story of Howard Beale (Peter Finch, also the recipient of the first posthumous Oscar as a result of this film), a long-serving news anchor who mind falls apart after his wife’s death. Facing the sack as ratings for his news broadcast fall and with a suspected alcohol problem fogging his mind, Beale makes the announcement that he will kill himself on his planned final broadcast.
Beale is fired but convinces his bosses to let him make a final farewell with dignity on air. Sure enough, Beale loses it again and denounces pretty much all news media as “bullshit” repeatedly. Only this time, the ratings for the show fly through the roof.
Despite its brazen central plot and regular doses of clattering fire-and-brimstone pronouncements, Network revels in its own sense of subtlety. Watch closely enough and you’ll quickly realize that Beale and his ravings are not the film’s true central premise. Rather, it’s the political machinations and the hunger for ratings and cash, led by Diana (Faye Dunaway) and Hackett (Robert Duvall) and the cabal of faceless fat, old white guys running the show behind closed doors that take the audience’s hands and lead them away.
As it stands, Beale, for all of his populism and truth-bombing, is nothing but livestock to the money men. Beale’s audience believe that they are in on something special, but all the while it’s being controlled from the boardroom. Nothing much has changed in that respect in nearly 40 years. Even with the internet, television is dominated by networks with big name value hidden in acronyms: NBC, CBS, UPN, ABC. We are allowed to glean their hypocrisy early on with a line well-hidden but ultimately key when assessing Network’s message and themes: “They’re complainin’ about the fuckin’ foul language!”
The growth and deformity of America’s news networks is inescapable. No longer acting under the pretence of impartiality and necessary information, they have become agenda-pushing signal feasts. Are we all doomed?
As Beale rants on, America’s population like putty in his hands, he talks about how the country’s heritage is being sold off to petro-dollar laden Arabs. It was a trend that author Anthony Burgess noted as occurring in Britain too, and wrote about it two years later in his book 1985.
But even with these stark warnings coming from him, Beale is manipulated further by the network until he ultimately does their bidding and finally… pays the ultimate price. The film’s final line is sickly sardonic: “This was the story of Howard Beale, the first known instance of a man who was killed because he had lousy ratings.”
Network is a film underpinned by fantastic performances from a stellar cast, a work of art that keeps you on the edge with a creeping sense of dread and a darkly comic heart that just about sums up the pitfalls and ludicrousness of life itself. Don’t touch that dial!