Thursday, December 8, 2011

Review - Network

December 8, 2011

Network – US, 1976

We can’t say we weren’t warned. Back in 1976, director Sidney Lumet and writer Paddy Chayefsky somehow looked into their crystal balls, saw where the world was heading, and tried to tell us. We just didn’t listen. Flash forward thirty-five years. We have corporate ownership of television networks, the continual quest for higher ratings regardless of how much integrity has to be shed to get them, and twenty-four hour news networks that often repeat the same information at the top of every hour. In addition, a news anchor can go from introducing a story on the discovery of a mass grave in Libya to merrily discussing the latest comments from a famous actor on his relationship with an equally famous actress that ended years ago.

Here are a few more things to consider: One of the highest rated shows during Aaron Brown’s tenure on CNN’s NewsNight was an hour-long expose on the Robert Blake trial, a story that can perhaps best be described as “lurid escapism” without any real educational value. Or what about the jury questionnaire for the trial of Michael Jackson’s doctor, Conrad Murray? One question asked potential jurors whether they watched television shows such as CSI. It appears shows like this have given people extremely unrealistic expectations about police work and the certainty of forensic evidence. And how about all of the news reports that begin with those infamous words unnamed sources report? I once heard these words used to introduce a brief news snippet that claimed the leader of one of the world’s leading economies was watching tapes of the September 11 tragedy over and over again and giggling non-stop. It seems that no one running the show stopped to ask themselves whether they should include such an unproven and potentially damaging accusation on a news program. Then there are the legal and personal problems that some stars of reality TV have had recently. According to someone who attended casting calls for some of these shows, the most interesting applicants were often the one that were the most troubled, and in many cases, these were the people that made the final cut, giving viewers the chance to watch emotionally unstable people implode right before their eyes on network television. Sadly, that is just what many people have elected to do.

Sidney Lumet’s masterpiece Network was a warning of things to come. It foresaw a world in which corporations would take over newscasts and place money and ratings over journalistic integrity. It looked into the hearts of average people and saw the growing unhealthy voyeuristic perspective that some of them were beginning to view the world through. In the film, rating go through the roof after a struggling news reporter named Howard Beale (Peter Finch) announces on air that he intends to kill himself live in two weeks time. If you think average people would be horrified by such an announcement, consider this: A video of a television reporter suddenly becoming incoherent and having trouble speaking during this year’s live Grammy telecast was “liked” by over 9,000 people and recommended to friends on the popular social network Facebook over six thousand times. An op-ed on CNN’s website rightly wondered what had happened to people’s empathy.

In Network, Howard Beale is the victim of poor ratings, and after a long distinguished career, he is being pushed out the door by the executives of CCA, a group that intends to make every section of their businesses profitable. This is a noble pursuit except that many people over the years have argued the news should be viewed differently, that it should be about informing and educating people and not about improving a company’s bottom line. In the film, we learn that UBS’s news department has lost $33,000,000, and the station’s new owners want to put a stop to that right away. To CCA, that means making the news more interesting to average people, and in a sign of just how little they regard this market, they want to showcase the kinds of stories that would make anchors such as Walter Cronkite and Ted Koppel shake their heads at how low the news has sunk. However, when the ratings go up for Beale after his meltdown, CCA elects to keep him on the air. They are thrilled that viewers are tuning in in droves to watch him rant like a madman about the current state of the world. His most inspirational tirade is probably the film’s most recognizable moment. Staring straight into the camera, Beale implores every person watching to rise from his seat, rush to the window, and shout, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!” People do.

The only person that seems genuinely worried about Beale is his longtime friend and co-worker Max Schumacher (William Holden). Schumacher implores the head of UBS to get Beale off the television and into counseling. However, his pleas fall on deaf ears, for it’s people like CCA’s Arthur Jenson (Ned Beatty) and Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall) that call the shots now, and they are perfectly willing to milk Beale for all the ratings they can get out of him, even if he is falling apart more and more each day. They don’t even mind that he regularly implores his audience to turn off the TV or rails against corporate ownership of news programs. As long as he’s making them money, he can say whatever he wants. This is still true today. John Stewart, despite his criticisms of both CNN and FOX News, has a weekend show on CNN International and seems to show up on FOX News regularly, even though FOX executives know that he is going to criticize them. He’s also going to improve ratings.

In Network, Faye Dunaway gives an absolutely stunning performance as Diana Christensen, a young executive that grew up watching Schumacher and even developed a crush on him. Apparently, his strong code of ethics did not rub off on her. In fact, she sees nothing wrong with making a star out of a terrorist, and one of the television shows that she champions is called The Mao Zedong Hour. She is part of a generation that according to the film has been raised on television and as a result has lost touch with the real world. Dunaway and Holden play off each other well, and in their conversations, we get a real sense of the differences between their character’s two generations. Dunaway won Best Actress for her performance, and it’s easy to see why.

In a perfect world, Network would seem ludicrous. A newscast with a live studio audience, a segment in which a woman known as Cyril the Soothsayer tries to predict the upcoming weekend’s news, and an opening monologue by a man who thinks he is being spoken to by a powerful entity and who after every monologue passes out to the thunderous applause of an audience that probably thinks it is all an act – who would believe that such things could make it on the air? Well, now not only do many people turn to a comedian for news updates, but there is even a television show called Naked News which claims to be serious about its journalistic integrity. How times have changed.

Network has a top-notch cast, and each one of them gives a terrific performance. Peter Finch, who was posthumously awarded Best Actor for his performance in the film, is thoroughly convincing as Beale, and there are times when his words have a bit more of the truth in them than we would like. Also watch for Ned Beatty’s fiery sermon/pep talk to an absolutely shell-shocked Beale. It makes the famous “Greed is good” speech from Wall Street seem like a children’s nursery rhyme. The script by Chayefsky, who also won an Oscar for the film, is equally astonishing, and it perfectly captures both the political climates and the personal attitudes of its time. Along with pop culture references to All in the Family and Maude, we hear about Patty Hearst, Liberation Armies, OPEC, and assassination attempts on Gerald Ford. We even hear about the growing paranoia of foreign ownership of American companies. It’s still with us today.

Network remains as powerful and poignant today as it did more than thirty years ago. It represents a major turning point in American history, one that we have unfortunately not done enough to reverse. It is not a film that will make viewers smile or feel good about themselves. Rather it is a film that will likely stoke anger, disappointment, or shock and cause viewers to reflect on where we’ve been, where we are, and where we are going. It is every bit a modern-day masterpiece, and it continues to be relevant, for its message has been true in every decade since the film first hit theatres. We should still be as mad as hell, and there are still far too many people being raised on television. Remember, we were warned. (on DVD and Blu-ray)

5 stars

*Beatrice Straight won Best Supporting Actress for her performance as Max Schumacher’s wife, Louise Schumacher.

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