Nobody has seen all the classic films that they are supposed to have watched but there’s always time to catch up.
“I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more!”
You may not have heard of this film. I hadn’t until relatively recently. However, if you are a social commentator then it’s probably the fourth time you mentioned the film today. This mid-1970s film is so zeitgeisty that it can’t help but crop up in editorials about the state of our media and society. Whether or not people have actually watched it before using it as a metaphor is another thing….
…..so I watched it.
Network is not a perfect film and has a number of flaws that I will go in to in a second but it does deserve classic status for a number of reasons. In an age of retrodden ground and remakes, Network says something that few other films do and in a sense is simultaneously a prophesy of the world that has come true and become the norm whilst remaining a warning about what is to come.
For a movie that speaks so much to the 21st century viewer, Network is a film that is very much lodged in the 1970s. For one it is a film about old men sitting behind desks, making decisions and having affairs. It’s a “Mad Men” sort of set up with tobacco floating through the air in a style that seems chauvinist and pompous today. At times, it becomes a parody of itself, which I will return to in a moment.
Into this man’s world walks Diana Christensen played by Faye Dunaway who is far and away the best presence in the movie. When the movie flags or suffers lapses in tone, often it is only Dunaway’s charisma and characterisation that maintains interest until the plot picks up again.
Diana Christensen, to our modern feminist-friendly eyes, is an incredible character – almost a modern time traveller into this 1970s world. She is confident, justifiably arrogant even. She is a prodigy, a spark – a committed careerist destined to transform her passion (broadcast media) beyond the imaginations of small-minded caretakers into a populist dream.
In fact, whilst I mock this era’s staid macho atmosphere, I have to reflect that powerful and talented leading female characters like Christensen are few and far between are basically unheard of in contemporary cinema. Apart from “The Hunger Games”‘ Katniss Everdeen, our female characters are rarely driven or powerful and even our female superheroes fail to be anything other than supporting characters.
Dunaway acts the role with flourish and went on to win an Oscar for it (Best Supporting Actress, though really it should have been Best Actress as she is the only real star of the film and prime character in the plot). Think of Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character from The Hudsucker Proxy played straight. [I realise comparing one obscure film to another is not the smartest comparison but Leigh is one of my favourite actors so it’s high praise].
Our other characters are the broadcasters and managers behind UBS evening news and it’s parent channel. The news segment is losing ratings and so the owners of the channel explore ways of raising the ratings, bringing in even the loose cannon Christensen to come up with new ideas.
Meanwhile, Howard Beale, the old news-reader is going to be sacked and suffers a breakdown. Live on air he announces that he will commit suicide. Instead, Christensen assumes control of the channel and convinces Beale to broadcast a weekly segment of his increasingly incoherent ranting and raving, which escalates into a national entertainment spectacle.
So far, so recognisable in our modern programming. Even the most unaware of us cannot help but see in the “reality” era how no commissioning idea gets past the early stages without an angle being opened up about how to push the boundaries further, cause scandal and get people talking. in fact, in the light of our reality shows the idea of getting a man on the verge of a breakdown to spew crazy yet temping ideas in the place of weekly news seems more quaint than anything. If Howard Beale was broadcast tomorrow, how could I tell him apart from Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck?
Still, as a prophesy from a pre-MTV era, it hits the bullseye.
Like a Jackie Chan film, the strongest moments are it’s set pieces which are intended to be memorable spectacles. These are: Beale’s announcement of suicide, his unkempt rain-splattered “Mad as Hell” speech, the people running into the streets and shouting his catchphrase and his eventual assassination. These scenes are spellbinding and tend towards a world that is enjoyably surreal. They point towards a world that diverges from our own as an interesting alternate history. This surreal reality twisting tone is re-enforced by the history lesson narrator who adds such lines as; “This was the story of Howard Beale, the first known instance of a man who was killed because he had lousy ratings” – a sentence that seems to project itself backwards from our own time, imagining (almost correctly) what kind of media dystopia we live in.
However, frustratingly the surreal satirical swiftian tone is actually quite lacking across the majority of the film’s run time.
The film’s main crime is the same charge that is levelled at the Star Wars prequels: Nobody wants to watch a film about some sort of tax embargo which languishes in the details without ever clearly explaining the big picture. Nearly half of Network’s run time seemed to be people in meetings discussing budgets and how the channel is being bought out and what their ratings were and what everybody thinks of that. In fact, the great Robert Duvall is entirely forgettable in this movie because his character has nothing to do other than to be involved in these endless discussions about the financial situation of the channel. I think the point of this is an expose of how we think news channels are run to disseminate information but actually they are advertising businesses that exist to make a turnover and little else. However, it’s hard to think that even in 1976 this was anything more than startlingly obvious information. In truth, the film has nothing to do with the financial situation of the channel. Characters like Diane Christensen are ratings-driven and willing to put someone like Beale on TV quite independently of this financial back story which adds nothing to the greater plot. The film temps us with Beale’s surreal world and then swerves away into drudgery amongst the channel office workers. At a 121 minute run time, this is just nothing more than padding and does impact on the overall feel of the film. One wonders if the script is a little too loyal to the book which probably made something more out of the wider situation at the channel.
However, the film has more problems than just boring swathes of budget chatter and an over-long run time. The film’s basic premise concerning Diane Christensen is basically old fashioned chauvenism. Christensen is a hard working, driven businesswoman who wants nothing more than to achieve exactly what her male bosses at the channel wish her to achieve. The film takes this woman and uses her as basically the main villain of the film, albeit one that is semi-sympathetic. It is true that she has ethical failings that could be criticised but the film’s moral positioning of her (as voiced by the character Max Schumacher who pronounces morally the themes of the film – More on him later) is frankly disgusting. She is described as heartless and mean and basically amoral simply because she does her job, which is what her superiors told her to do. Several other characters do exactly what Christensen does throughout the film but escape moral judgement and censure. For example, it’s not Christensen alone who allows Beale to be put on TV even though he is raving mad but also his so-called friend Max but only Christensen is blamed. It quickly becomes clear that Christensen’s gender is part of the problem. All the other men in the film work hard but Duvall’s character is never described as working herself into an early grave, only Dunaway’s Christensen. Christensen is a strong female presence who wants to usher in the future of television and do away with the old guard establishment and for that she is condemned as a woman who works harder than a woman should work and makes moral decisions that women should not make even as men are also allowed to work hard, make changes and make tough moral choices without any kind of criticism. The film suffers from a male sexist fug that hangs around like a cloud.
Let me turn my gaze to the aforementioned Max Schumacher played by William Holden. This character plays basically no part in the wider plot about Beale. He is described as Beale’s friend but they barely spend two scenes together, he is the boss of the channel until he is fired early on and he contributes little else. His friendship with Beale is set out as believable (they share some drunken banter at the beginning) but his reaction to Beale’s madness is nonsensical. Schumacher allows Beale to continue making television appearances (in which he threatens suicide, rages manically and passes out), seems to put him up at his flat (no scenes of this appear in the film) and at no point seeks to get any kind of medical or familial help for his so-called friend. But for one thing, Schumacher is irrelevant to the plot, another drag on runtime and mouthpiece for an author held over from the book.
That one thing that the film uses to keep him involved in events? He starts an affair with Christensen. This is a man who looks 70 years old and is referred to several times as approaching this age. Keeping in mind that a male writer, male screenwriter and male director put this together, to have the young vibrant Christensen engage in a sexual relationship with a disgusting old man is just awful. They justify it by saying that Christensen wants Schumacher because she admires his career but it becomes obvious later on that the relationship means nothing to her, far less than her job does. Why would she seduce this man she cares nothing about in reality? The whole thing smacks of a post-pill post-1960s sense of sexual entitlement that men seemed to have in that period. The idea that ageing men could continue to have affairs with girls half their age and that the girls want them really is funny in a whimsical TV show like Quincy but just stupid in a serious motion picture.
Their relationship is handled in the most shallow way by the film. Their early dates are shown in full as is their break up but absolutely nothing is shown in between. The story of their relationship falls immediately flat. Schumacher is portrayed throughout as some sort of innocent who cannot resist Christensen and is powerless to make his own decisions. The most horrible scene is where he announces the affair to his wife where he shows no concept of her emotional state and by the end of the conversation manages to bring her around to a situation where he asks her to just accept what is happening because he cannot help it and she should just stand by for when the whole thing falls through. Sickeningly, she seems to accept this state. It’s all a very familiar chauvinist refrain – the woman forced my sexual actions through her looks and actions. The script is completely misogynist in this regard that women are blamed for sex and their emotional feelings just aren’t something to be treated with any importance. Oh and yes, older craggy man who should be in a nursing home naturally gets the young blonde.
Their relationship collapses eventually because Schumacher tires of her emotional coldness, her lack of ethics (as if cheating on your wife displayed his own ethics well) and the way she works “too hard”. It all rings of the system naturally beating back down a woman who chooses to work hard to achieve her career aims and does not conform to what her man wants her to be which seems to be to be more emotionally attentive to him….whilst he resolved the right to work the same job, make the same unethical decisions, treats his wife coldly and prioritise his career. What is ok for the goose here does not seem to be ok for the gander. Christensen speaks of their relationship as if it is a television show, which Schumacher chastises but time has aged this badly as who doesn’t imagine their life from time to time through the lenses of the small or big screen. And yet throughout, the film casts Schumacher as the voice of reason and he pontificates through the film’s sermons, especially on Christensen. Here is his denouncement:
“It’s too late, Diana. There’s nothing left in you that I can live with. You’re one of Howard’s humanoids. If I stay with you, I’ll be destroyed. Like Howard Beale was destroyed. Like Laureen Hobbs was destroyed. Like everything you and the institution of television touch is destroyed. You’re television incarnate, Diana: Indifferent to suffering; insensitive to joy. All of life is reduced to the common rubble of banality. War, murder, death are all the same to you as bottles of beer. And the daily business of life is a corrupt comedy. You even shatter the sensations of time and space into split seconds and instant replays. You’re madness, Diana. Virulent madness. And everything you touch dies with you. But not me. Not as long as I can feel pleasure, and pain… and love.”
Diana is not a moral or even very sympathetic character but the man who has affairs and who put Beale back on TV after he said he was going to kill himself on air gets to chastise a woman for working hard and exploring a more entertainment-led televisual experience. Whilst Diana’s brand of “reality” television is something we turn our nose up at, the very popularity of it means it’s hard to be as harsh on her as the movie wants to be. If the channel’s viewers are down, why shouldn’t it become more exiting and entertaining to compete. Though Beale’s crazed rants are unethical as he clearly needs psychiatric help, his voice is presented in the film as a maverick voice, uncovering corporate conspiracy and giving voice to the common man. The film wants to have it’s cake and eat it by presenting Beale’s show as an honest voice, yet demonise Christensen as a caricature of the female executives that give rise to this new television, yet even further still hold back on any judgement of the men who do the same. In fact, the hoary old drunks who precede her are shown as almost heroic, ignoring the fact that they too have to toe the editorial line of their channel owners.
Apart from the misogynist tendencies in the script, another disappointing aspect of the film is the way the film quickly meets it’s ending. The assassination of Beale on live television is an iconic moment and very well chosen but really doesn’t fit with the logic of the film. Beale’s death is something from a futuristic dystopia – the same sort of world that would commission Rollerball or The Running Man where corporations are happy to murder for ratings and audience control. However, this is not the reality the film has established. The executives um and ah about putting a raving man on television, yet scenes later are content to order a man’s death. The logic seems to be that once one barrier is broken (giving a voice to a man who does not act like a 1950s news reader) then all morals are off the table and any action is possible. It’s all too quick and misses the necessity of intermediary links that explain how the moral compasses of the executives are so worn down over time that they would kill a man for ratings. As it stands, the film presents it as an overnight change.
However, despite the two flaws I have mentioned, Network stands up well as a sort of prophesy that once told the future and now acts as a sort of mythic history of where we have been and where we might still be headed. It’s well worth watching but with a pair of editing scissors around the character of Max Schumacher entirely might cut the film’s frankly ridiculously stretched and slow-paced 2 hour running time down to something quite entertaining.
I’ll leave you with the most entertaining part of the film, which is where Diana is negotiating with a band of radical terrorists to try to film a reality show about them (shocking in the film but surely not a million miles away from Ross Kemp on Gangs or something of that ilk).
“The Communist Party’s not gonna see a nickel of this goddamn show until we go into syndication!”