It is (was when I wrote this**)October 28th, 2020 and I am down to the top twelve remaining films on this list. I am a human being who responds to tradition, whether I want to or not, and thus am feeling the Halloween spirit. Having spent all my Hitchcock cash I have reserved what appears to be an early horror classic, The Night of the Hunter for Halloween night and picked what felt like the remaining movie that was likely to have the most tension, number 73, Network. The result of watching Network a week before the 2020 Trump vs Biden showdown is something far more terrifying than any horror movie I have ever seen. The film, written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Sidney Lumet, is not about politics. It’s about a newsroom, the crazed man in front of the camera, and crazed woman behind it.
I knew the basic premise of Network, mostly because of the 2016 documentary Kate Plays Christine. Kate Plays Christine and Network are connected because like most of the human world, the director of Kate Plays Christine assumed a connection between the Oscar winning film Network and Chubbuck’s death that preceded it’s release two years earlier. Chubbick was a 29 year old regional reporter who committed suicide on camera in 1974. That assumption has been debunked by the New York Times, which asserts that the screenplay for Network was first drafted well before Chubbuck’s death but it inevitably adds a layer of intrigue to the film which examines the role of news in an American democracy with free speech.
Chubbuck, before killing herself said, “In keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in ‘blood and guts’ and in living color, you are going to see another first — an attempted suicide.” This direct line to the studio is in keeping with the lead of Network Howard Beale, who announces early in the film that he has been fired for low ratings and will “blow his brains out” during his final broadcast in order to boost ratings. Beale’s plot was never serious — we see in the film’s opening sequence that the idea is a joke between Beale and his network executive buddy (the man who fired him) Max Schumacher (played by William Holden). Up and comer producer, Diana Christensen, played by the, dare I say, ravishing, Faye Dunaway, sees an opportunity to capitalize on Beale’s populist appeal. He’s mad as hell, and he’s not going to take it anymore.
That is the key sentiment, the memorable line in the film that carries it through the annals of timelessness. Nobody can decide if it’s drama or satire, Ebert calls it prophecy writing in 2000, “Seen a quarter-century later, it is like prophecy. When Chayefsky created Howard Beale, could he have imagined Jerry Springer, Howard Stern and the World Wrestling Federation?” which is especially interesting from an additional twenty years into the future where the prescient quality is dangerously magnified. In place of the WWF and Jerry Springer we have Rudy Gulliani and Kellyanne Conway, and god damn Donald Trump. In many ways Beale, (supported by his off screen puppet masters) is a biblical omen as much as he is the crazed prophet they market him to be. A “newsman” who blends information and entertainment by exploiting the base, guttural, psychology of Americans unable to sleep in the bed they’ve made. Beale lists the woes of 1975 which, forgive me, seem quaint in 2020 — gas prices, Russia, a recession… must be nice to be able to go outside and scream about it.
Beale is given a new format of a show complete with a psychic and a live studio audience for him to proselytize to. At first he remains scrappy and questions the threat of a profit driven corporation being a reliable source of news which is starkly terrifying considering the current state of affairs with the media — Fox News specifically but not exclusively — see the HBO show Succession for additional details. One of the central questions in Network is what role should the news play in society, and how does that intersect with the ever increasing role of television, and even further, the ever increasing role of journo-capitalism in geopolitical relationships?
The film’s pacing is perfectly timed and the hits continue to grow with power and emphasis. Take for instance that initial rebuke Beale delivers of the network which is followed by a scene between the network executive and Beale that is haunting and magnificent and perfectly on pitch.
Besides all of this there is arguably the more interesting story of Christensen, who is ambitious and wily. She starts an affair with Beale’s old friend Holden and toys with him at every opportunity. The adjectives I want to use for her performance are all overwrought but spellbinding keeps springing to mind. She navigates the annals of the male corporate world using her considerable advantages, including her media savvy, good looks, and lack of morality, to achieve a meteoric rise at the company. Another memorable monologue in the film comes when Holden tells his wife, played by Beatrice Schumacher, about the affair, and she delivers a scourge of a speech which excuses his physical infidelity but deftly questions the emotional economics of a traditional marriage — if he can’t be loyal, if he can’t be in love, if he can’t be attracted to her anymore, doesn’t he still owe her companionship in return for her labors?
This film is a pattern: laying a base of absurdity that is just shy of the realm of believability, on top of which a dynamic array of well motivated and rounded characters bouncing off of each other, resulting in shiny spots of gut punch speeches that cut through the distractions so cleanly they scream for attention above the noise.
Much of the politics and morality of Network is more relevant today than it ever has been, so much so that I ironically watched this movie the day before TikTok star (explain that to Beale) Sara Cooper’s new Netflix show “This is Fine” premiered which in some ways is an homage to the Beale’s declaration of hopelessness. I see the fingerprints of Network all over some of my favorite shows and movies — I mentioned Succession above, and there’s also the merry cast of foul mouthed misfits in Veep, or the questions of power and influence raised in The Morning Show or Newsroom.
At the end of the film when the executives are debating how to handle the creature they bore but can no longer control, when the idea of assassinating him is floated, there is not a voice in the room that objects to the logic. The discourse is generic, as if they are discussing swapping time slots or making him wear a different color tie. This is where the balance of absurdity and gut wrenching truth collide and it’s confusing which side of the comedy / tragedy masks has taken control of the wheel. Lumet and Chayefsky have gazed into the crystal ball and instead of heeding the warnings they so masterfully demonstrated for us, we used it as a blueprint. I’m mad as hell, and I’m going to do what has been done since 1976… very little.