The relationship we have with the media is a complicated one. We binge, hate-watch, cry, and laugh with characters familiar and unfamiliar. We equally suspend our disbelief and get all swept up in it.
Few films have summarized (and satirized) this relationship as well as the movie “Network” ― a shocking feat when you remember that the film came out in 1976.
Still, “Network” remains a provocative and influential film that acts as both a timepiece and a terrifying crystal ball.
The film follows respected anchorman Howard Beale, who we’re introduced to just as he gets fired from the network he works for, UBS. Distraught, Beale announces that he’s going to kill himself on air à la Christine Chubbuck, sending ratings through the roof. The black dramedy then takes many wild turns beginning with the ratings-hungry TV executives keeping Beale on the air as he mentally breaks down night after night. Other plot points include the beautiful, albeit heartless, reporter Diana Christensen (played by Faye Dunaway) thriving off Beale’s personal downfall, seducing another TV executive before getting him fired, and hiring a pseudo-Symbionese Liberation Army-type group to murder Beale on air as a way of kick-starting their next serialized program.
The story is unbelievable and entrancing, while also nausea-inducing.
It feels absurd but somehow possible because as far-fetched as it seems, it also hits a little too close to home. In the 40 years since the film came out, we’ve seen the live broadcasts of ISIS beheading journalists, “Survivor” contestants well up with tears as they ingest live insects, and Donald Trump, the real estate mogul and one-time host of “The Apprentice,” running for the president of the United States (with an alarming amount of support).
“Network” is and will always be successful for its ineffably on-point prediction of how far television, media, and even our political climate could go.
Director and writer Aaron Sorkin brought up a salient point when discussing the film with the Times: “You wish Chayefsky [the writer of ‘Network’] could come back to life long enough to write ‘The Internet.’”
There’s no question that Paddy Chayefsky’s take on 2016’s social media-obsessed, screen-covered world would make Orwell’s “1984” look primitive.
“Network” personifies the ‘70s well ― highlighting the era’s counterculture, anti-establishment and leftist feelings, fixations on Patty Hearst and the Mansons, hippies. Despite all of this, it shines the most when highlighting the perversion viewers feed off of as they watch television ― a perversion that has now extended to surfing the web and scrolling through our phones. That inimitable feeling of enticing viewers by constantly asking the question: “How far will they go?”
“Network” is an articulate indictment of American audiences.
It’s easy to recognize the fictional UBS station in the film in major stations like today’s FOX, particularly when you think of the absurdity FOX has housed over the years. From reality and talk shows to all of the other types of variety programming, the station has put out a slew of questionable broadcasts. Shows like “American Idol” or “The X-Factor” highlight the obsession we have with becoming famous.
Those are tame by comparison to shows like “I Want To Marry Harry,” where women were rallied and tricked into thinking they were vying for the love of Prince Harry, or even “Nanny 911,” which brought a British nanny into the homes of parents with “unruly children” and had her harshly calling out their ineptitude for rearing children, all while millions of other families relished in it. Schadenfreude is what drives so much of our media consumption, and “Network” plays with that fact in glorious ways.
Today, Howard Beale’s iconic “mad as hell” speech isn’t a joke or an exaggeration anymore. It’s real. People are dying in the streets and we’ve been apathetic, but Trump is convincing so many Americans to get mad.
Our current political climate has its very own Beale in Trump.
Trump’s wall and reality star-cum-politician career path sounds insane to many of us because he’s a real-life Beale. A fact that is only solidified when people describe him like this:
“Every critic, every detractor, will have to bow down to President Trump. It’s everyone who’s ever doubted Donald, who ever disagreed, who ever challenged him. It is the ultimate revenge to become the most powerful man in the universe.” ― Omarosa
To describe our media landscape, as a whole, is to say that it is seductive, entertaining, divisive, corrupting and desensitizing.
“Network” is a didactic work of art that reminds us of the media’s wiles, making it the sort of film that should be brought into classrooms around the world. Whether you’re of the generation that adored “Dr. Strangelove” or “The Colbert Report” or “Black Mirror,” one that preferred the movie star Ronald Reagan in the White House over the racist, apoplectic Donald Trump, “Network” unpacks a media that has only grown more exploitative as years have gone on and will surely have viewers new and old walking away wondering why we’ve only veered closer to that dystopia.
David Foster Wallace summed up the movie’s great thesis, without ever intending to. Particularly if you think of “TV” standing in for film, news channels and the internet.
During a 1993 interview pertaining to his essay “E Unibus Pluram,” he said:
“TV’s ‘real’ agenda is to be ‘liked,’ because if you like what you’re seeing, you’ll stay tuned. TV is completely unabashed about this; it’s its sole raison… It’s seldom acknowledged that viewers’ relationship with TV is, albeit debased, intricate and profound.”
Will you stay tuned?