Classics, Favourite films, Film festivals, Movies, Reviews, Writers

Television, the drug of the nation: tuning back into Network

Part of the Cinema Rediscovered Festival at Bristol’s Watershed cinema, it was a pleasure to see Sidney Lumet’s 1976 film Network on the big screen for the first time. If you haven’t seen the film some mild spoilers follow…

T.V. is the reason why less than 10 per cent of our Nation reads books daily

Why most people think Central America means Kansas

Socialism means un-American

And Apartheid is a new headache remedy

Michael Franti, Television The Drug of the Nation (1988)

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While a critical hit on its release, 1976’s Network was not universally praised at the time. Richard Schickel in his review for Time Magazine found writer Paddy Chayefsky’s depiction of scheming television executives overly melodramatic, writing “[the plot Chayefsky] has concocted to prove this point is so crazily preposterous that even in post-Watergate America—where we know that bats can get loose in the corridors of power—it is just impossible to accept.”

Oh, Richard. We had no idea how bad things were going to get. But after rewatching Network it seems that Chayefsky almost certainly did.

Set in a world of American television dominated by monolithic broadcast networks (director Sidney Lumet favours vertiginous ground level shots of towering offices to ram home the point) in Network a veteran news anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch) suffers an on-camera breakdown after being fired. Beale’s breakdown produces an overnight rating spike and is seized upon by Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway), an unscrupulous young entertainment producer, who builds a show around Beale’s crazed rantings. Beale’s friend and head of the news division Max Schumacher (William Holden) is appalled but finds himself sidelined by the corporate manoeuvring of network executive Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall) who has long been irritated by Schumacher’s independence and lack of accountability to management.

Against a background of falling news ratings, and the consolidation of corporate ownership of television, Chayefsky saw the values and integrity of television journalism being eroded in the pursuit of audience share. Under the cover of giving the audience what they appear to want (soft entertainment presented as news) Chayefsky saw that the most powerful propaganda tool in human history was in danger of falling into the control of vested commercial interests.

Screened as part of the Cinema Rediscovered Festival at Bristol’s Watershed cinema, watching Network in 2017 fells like being shamed by Cassandrian prophet returning to their original big screen soap box screaming ‘WHY DIDN’T YOU LISTEN, YOU MANIACS?’

In an excellent introduction to the screening, journalist and broadcaster Samira Ahmed wryly noted given events of the week just past the film was of particular interest to female journalists in its depiction of broadcast news culture being dominated by old white and male presenters (Network opens by juxtaposing screens showing all four major network news shows presented by middle aged white male anchors).

However, neither Ahmed nor anyone in last night’s audience can have anticipated the madness we woke up to this morning as news broke of President Trump’s freshly appointed head of communications Anthony Scaramucci calling a New Yorker journalist to rant about senior colleagues. Scaramucci allegedly called White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus “a fucking paranoid schizophrenic” and claimed Trump strategist Steve Bannon was “trying to suck his own cock”. Dialogue that could easily have been written by Chayefsky for delivery by Duvall.

When Dunaway’s character says “The American people want somebody to articulate their rage for them” she could be talking about Trump or Brexit. In Howard Beale, Chayefsky predicted the rise of the provocateur broadcaster, everybody from Piers Morgan to Glenn Beck. Dunaway’s character would certainly have approved of Morgan’s ‘scoop’ of the BBC pay story and his gleeful self-aggrandising overstatement when he simply broke a news embargo a couple of hours early.

As Beale spirals ever further into paranoid mania, he prefigures the rise of the kind of conspiracy theorists who are now a major force on the broadcasting landscape. Only a few years ago someone like David Icke was regarded as a representative of a lunatic fringe, now Alex Jones appears to feature on the President of the United States speed dial list.

Network captures a culture of corporate bullying that has become normalised not just in broadcasting and print journalism, but in the wider corporate workplace. Both Dunaway and Duvall’s characters are constantly screaming abuse at senior colleagues and subordinates alike.

In her introduction, Ahmed noted similarities between Frank Hackett and former News of the World editor Andy Coulson. A reporter from the late paper was awarded £800,000 in damages after being forced to leave their job due to a stress induced breakdown caused by a culture of bullying led by Coulson. Yet Coulson was still hired by David Cameron to be his head of communications (as an aside, here’s an idea for a bro comedy. Coulson and Scaramucci hit Vegas, get hammered, wake up the next morning and have to work out which one did the most damage the previous night).

Network is full of great speeches, and while Beales “I’m mad as hell” rant is the most quoted, my favourite is later in the film.

Network_40Allowing a demonstrably deranged individual free reign on live television is dangerous and the wheels come off The Howard Beale Show when he sours a major corporate deal with an on-camera rant about corporate influence on the news. Called for a meeting with Arthur Jensen (Ned Beatty), the chairman of CCA the corporation that owns the network, Beale is terrified into submission by an epic soliloquy on ‘corporate cosmology’. Beatty is outstanding, the “primal forces of nature” speech stands alongside Alec Baldwin’s “Always be closing” from Glengarry Glen Ross as one for the ages.

Not everything in Network has aged as well, there is a broad satirical subplot about left wing domestic terrorists that while funny, is very much of its time. The sexual politics of the film are also questionable. Dunaway’s character is sexually promiscuous and has a relationship with Holden’s much older character that breaks up his marriage. Some have seen the presentation of this as Chayefsky demonising her and the portrayal of female sexuality as ‘deviant’. I’m not entirely sure that is fair, it could be argued that in order to succeed in a male dominated culture, Christensen is simply acting like a man. However, in the film’s final act ratings plunge due to Beale becoming the mouthpiece for Jensen’s vision of a corporate world in which individualism is irrelevant. Dunaway becomes unambiguously villainous as she conspires to have Beale assassinated on air.

Chayefsky also lets Holden’s character off rather too easily. His breakup scene with Dunaway is fantastic, but here and in a prior scene where he breaks up with his wife (Beatrice Straight) Schumacher is horribly cruel to both. Yet his actions are presented as noble. When he tells his wife “I’m not sure [Christensen is] capable of any real feelings. She’s television generation. She learned life from Bugs Bunny.” The line has a nasty patrician ‘get off my lawn’ twang, that reminds me of the complaints about millennials not voting that preceded the recent UK general election, a complaint that turned out to be utterly unjustified.

For more information on the Cinema Rediscovered festival, visit the Watershed website http://www.watershed.co.uk/cinema-rediscovered

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