Network (1976)

Dir. Sidney Lumet. Starring Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Peter Finch

In Sunset Blvd, Joe Gillis recognizes that he has seriously damaged two women and decides to bail out back to Ohio: not because he’s running away from them, but because he sees it as a penance for his sins. (Of course, we know what happens to him instead; the film begins with it, after all.) In The Bridge on the River Kwai, Shears spends two and a half hours trying to escape a brutal war and then dies for country anyway. In The Wild Bunch, the almost pornographically named outlaw Pike Bishop redeems himself for abandoning a comrade by dying in what was, up to that time, arguably the most violent sequence in American cinema history. And in Network, aged TV bureaucrat Max Schumacher is a professional and personal victim of relentlessly meretricious television programming and its bureaucratic goblin slaves. William Holden doesn’t die in Network, for a change, but he was always the right choice to play a man who’s given up on the world, only to recognize too late that there was something in himself, something around himself, worth saving after all. Holden specialized in that type of performance – the serious, frequently violent version of “Bart Sells His Soul” – and in a film where just anyone with a name gets his or her fifteen minutes, I’ve always thought Max stood out. Or maybe I think Holden stands out, even in a cast where just about everyone else (Finch, Dunaway, Straight) won an Oscar (and where Robert Duvall should have been nominated for Supporting Actor for Frank Hackett). Out of his four best screen roles, this is the only one where he spends most of the film regretting his cynicism; in the other three, it’s too late to do much about it by the time he acts.

In a film punctuated with long speeches – “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” and “You have meddled with the primal forces of nature, Mr. Beale!…” and the “Turn them off!” monologue – it seems like Max Schumacher gets as many long speeches as anyone. (Chayefsky won a well-deserved Oscar for his screenplay, although those long speeches are probably a touch more Shakespearean than this movie wants to be.) Ironically, they are the ones which don’t hit as hard. The best of the bunch is Arthur Jensen’s (Ned Beatty, in the greatest single-scene performance in film history) eyes-wide-open discussion of how capitalism ate countries, shot from below to make Mr. Jensen into God Himself, lit by those green law-school lamps. In The Three Sisters, Vershinin dreams of a future in which the educated and thoughtful will promulgate and eventually become the majority, creating a world which is “unimaginally beautiful.” Seventy-five years later, Network poses a significantly more likely future from Jensen’s mustached lips, in which “one vast and ecumenical holding company” will employ “all men,” each doing their part to “serve a common profit, in which all men will hold a share of stock.” Diana’s monologues, in particular the one in which she breathlessly rumbles through her problems with The Mao Tse-Tung Hour and the one where she proclaims “All I want out of life is a 30 share and a 20 rating,” are memorable in their own right.  And there’s a real panache to Howard Beale as the love child of a carnival barker and Demosthenes, who riles his viewers into a frenzy faster than you can say “’70s American Weltanschaaung.” So that leaves Max Schumacher with, by and large, a quieter and more desperate set of words to sort through. His language is curious in the extreme once he starts his affair with Diana; the old Max is still in there, grappling with his post-midlife crisis and the reality of his life and replacing the missing pieces with TV autospeak. Even his speech where he liberates himself from Diana’s “virulent madness” is tainted with an analogy from television. His mic drop is a feeble “And here a few scenes from next week’s show.” My initial reaction was that this was a middling, unnecessary reference. After having watched the movie several more times, I’ve come around on it. It feels like the proof that the hooks of Diana’s world will never be released; he’s always going to bear the scars of his brief foray into the sometimes sexy, oftentimes literally breathless universe of television programming. There’s no point in being cynical anymore, if you’re Max Schumacher returning to your wife, but at least when one is cynical there’s no room for regret.

If Network was an object in foresight, one of those happy cases in which the satire appears to not to have been ridiculous enough, it’s not because of the news coverage depicted in the movie. Indeed, one tires of hearing about how Network was so prescient as if the screenplay and storyboard are the result of some crystal ball instead of the result of 1970s anxieties, which it will always be a far superior representation of than some nameless art-becomes-life bit. What Network is bemoaning is not so much that news has become ridiculous as much as it’s become hegemonic. Howard tells his audience one night, “You’re beginning to believe the illusions we’re spinning here. You’re beginning to think that the tube is reality and that your own lives are unreal.” If there’s an uncanny resemblance to what’s going on today in those sentences, it has to do with the Internet, not television, and the gullibility and utter foolishness that the Internet manages to foster in otherwise normal, reasonable people.

What’s striking about the power of television in this film is that no one is immune. Given what happens to everyone else, it doesn’t seem like a stretch to say that Howard Beale’s decade-plus as the anchor at UBS is what made him crazy. When Max is approached by a woman who appears to him like television in human form, he falls for her almost instantly. Diana, who “learned life from Bugs Bunny,” is impersonal to the point of total abstraction. Dunaway’s performance, which is marvelous, has frequently been pointed to as the archetype for “work-obsessed career woman,” which is a certain species of absurd; Diana is merely unhinged. To take the film’s word for it, it’s not even necessarily her fault. She’s young enough that television has made her into someone who cannot relate to others without putting it into the vernacular of TV; of course, that’s taking Max’s word for it. At no point does Diana suggest that any of her problems stem from television or from her upbringing. (We’re supposed to take Max’s side here, who is something of an oracle for Chayefsky. William Holden was born in 1918. Chayefsky was born in 1923. Dunaway was born in 1941. Make of all that what you will.) If Diana has an issue, it’s that she has no way to motivate or reward herself intrinsically; her entire self-worth is built on things which are outside of herself and which force her to act more and more irrationally to continue doing well. If the initial extrinsic force in her life was TV as a kid, then I suppose that makes some sense, and Max’s analysis of her is less fuddy-duddy and more Freud. Like Diana, Frank Hackett could make it anywhere, but seems to find television rewarding in a way that other areas wouldn’t be. Frank is an exemplar of nominative determinism; he is both blunt and stabby, with an appetite for the jugular and even less empathy than Diana. At one point in the film Diana manages to take Max seriously when he expresses his discomfort with their souring trysts. Frank doesn’t even have that much humanity in him; he is, in one character’s words, a “hatchet man,” and his histrionic tendencies are played up by the histrionic business that he’s been assigned to. By the end of the film, stuck in a situation where Howard Beale’s ratings are plummeting but God-Arthur Jensen refuses to have Howard off the air,  the two of them are the primary instigators of what appears to be a darkly comic suggestion. What would happen if we had Howard killed? they wonder. The conversation continues for another thirty seconds or so before we realize that, welp, they aren’t kidding. And even president of the network Nelson Chaney (Wesley Addy), who has been a voice of reason, a man who, like Max and Howard, has seen a few things in his time in network television, goes along with it in the end. He offers up a token bit of resistance (We’re talking about killing someone, he says in a nervy voice), but ultimately does nothing to stop them. And so we see Howard blown away on live television, becoming, as the narrator tells us, the first person to be killed because his ratings were too low.

For whatever foibles there are in Chayefsky’s screenplay, it’s worth noting that at its best it is screamingly funny. That last line is great. The first sequence with characters in the story features Max and Howard, fairly drunk, reminiscing about the good old days. It shares the black humor of the film’s end: it’s a story about a young Max waking up late for a shoot on the George Washington Bridge, yelling at a cabbie to take him to the middle of it, and being told by the concerned driver not to do it, that he has his whole life ahead of him. Before the “mad as hell” screaming fit that’s defined this movie since its debut, Howard Beale appears at the UBS stations in a raincoat and pajamas, having presumably wandered around a rainy New York City for the previous eighteen hours or so. The doorman greets him. Without looking at him, Howard says sharply, “I must make my witness.” The doorman is unfazed, but I sure wasn’t. There’s a certain beauty to Diana’s reaction to the early stages of Howard’s breakdown (“processed instant God”). Above all others, though, are the Communists.

Representing the party as a whole is Laureen Hobbs (Marlene Winfield), who is brought on to be the liaison between UBS and the Ecumenical Liberation Army, which is differentiated from the Symbionese Liberation Army within the film itself. Like the SLA, the ELA has kidnapped an heiress (played, no foolin’, by Walter Cronkite’s daughter Kathy) who is pretty wrapped up in their politics. Having seen her and some other ELA members hold up a bank in a film they shot themselves, Diana manages to turn it into a series, the aforementioned Mao Tse-Tung Hour. Aside from the legal problems which inevitably come from using terrorists’ footage for profit, the network finds it has no small amount of trouble on its hands. Laureen Hobbs, although she speaks in the kind of jargon typically used by pretentious college juniors, proves to be a savvy businesswoman who recognizes that the show won’t make any money until it’s entered syndication. She also takes issue with the Ecumenicals themselves, including their leader, in a bit of dialogue which is utterly demented and wonderful:

Laureen: The Ecumenical Liberation Army is an ultra-left sect creating political confusion with wildcat violence and pseudo-insurrectionary acts, which the Communist Party does not endorse. The American masses are not yet ready for open revolt. We would not want to produce a television show celebrating historically deviational terrorism.

Diana: Ms. Hobbs, I’m offering you an hour of primetime television every week in which you can stick whatever propaganda you want.

Laureen: The Ecumenicals are an undisciplined ultra-left gang, and the leader is an eccentric, to say the least. He calls himself the Great Ahmed Khan and wears a hussar’s shako.

It is, bar none, my absolute favorite description of anyone ever. The Great Ahmed Khan (Arthur Burghardt) turns out to be just that when Laureen shows up at his headquarters later on, telling him over his bucket of KFC that she’s going to make him bigger than Archie Bunker. It’s not clear she cashes in on that promise; in the end, the Great Ahmed Khan is one of the men who guns down Howard Beale, thus making him something more like the Kristin Shepard of network news.

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