Top 100 Movie Review: #66 – Network (1976)

Prescient to Our Current Political Life.

Human nature never changes — Network knew it.

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Howard Beale (Peter Finch), the despondent news anchor, now prophet of the airways.

American Film Institute Ranking: #66/100
Academy Awards: Nominated for six winning four: Best Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor and Original Screenplay.
My Rating: cropped-smooth-starcropped-smooth-starcropped-smooth-starcropped-smooth-star

“Network” knew there was a weakness in the system and ourselves. All it was going to take was one seemingly clairvoyant person to serendipitously realize that people don’t live on a diet of rational, purposeful solutions. Rather it is channeling people’s frustrations and anger, being a conduit for people’s rage, that propels you to power.

Howard Beale did not purposefully reinvent his show to do the latter; he mentally snapped at the appropriate time on air. What happened next was a lack of duty by those that had the power to stop it — the television executives were more than happy to rake in the ratings boom that he brought.

This bug in the system reveals much about ourselves and should make our selections of politicians no surprise.

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William Holden, Robert Duvall, Peter Finch, and Faye Dunaway with three of four winning Academy Awards.

[plot/spoilers.]

Howard Beale (played by Peter Finch who won his Oscar for his performance posthumously), has learned that he is getting fired for bad ratings as a news anchor. On Beale’s farewell show, he tells the entire country that he plans to kill himself. Beale is immediately fired, but the president of the news division, Max Schumacher (William Holden), intervenes thinking that Beale should have a chance to formally apologize and go off the air with dignity.

Except Beale goes on the airways to rant about all the BULLSHIT in life. 

Shumacher is dismayed that his friend has deteriorated mentally, but he’s stopped from doing anything: Beale provided such a boosting in ratings that they decide to keep him on as lead news anchor.

Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) and Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall) begin to take over for Shumacher, trying to squeeze as much money out of Beale’s antics as possible. He starts to be billed as the “mad prophets of the airways” which isn’t wrong: he tells viewers to open up their windows and to scream as loud as possible “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”

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Schumacher is watching from home, completely dismayed that Beale is clearly ill but thinks no one could by into this ludicrous drivel. Instead, he hears people on his block opening their windows and shouting to the top of their lungs.

Beale, upon learning about his network’s desire to do a merger, goes on the airways to convince viewership to stop it. This gets the attention of the main shareholder of the network, Aurthur Jensen, due to the public relations crisis. He meets with Beale to tell him how reality really works:

“We no longer live in a world of nations and ideologies, Mr. Beale. The world is a college of corporations, inexorably determined by the immutable bylaws of business.” – Arthur Jensen

With this new information, Beale begins to inform his viewers about the threat of corporations and the loss of the individual, to only see his ratings decline. Christensen, with no better option of how to get rid of him, has him killed on air.

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There is a whole other theme within the movie about how “life isn’t a script” involving these two that I won’t have time to get into.

[analysis.]

The most telling aspect of the movie is not what lead to Beale’s ascent but his demise.

Arthur Jensen’s monologue is really good.

It’s choked full of allusions and references to the reality of living in a global society. It’s a fiery blend of anti-corporation, crony-capitalism, the loss of the individual, and the power of access. Beale had just upset the primal forces of nature, Jensen says, by his little stunt interrupting their business merger. Beale watches the fire and brimstone speech eyes wide open.

He takes this awakening and tries to bring it to the masses. But he can’t do it — his ratings drop.  When he starts talking about real things, viewers start to take it as too depressing. The narrator at this point interlopes with:

“Nobody particularly cared to hear his life was utterly valueless.”

Since Jensen wants to use Beale as his megaphone to teach people the ills of corporate America, he nixes moves by network executives to remove him. Not wanting to see their position in jeopardy due to poor ratings, the executives do the only thing they can think of: get one last ratings boost by killing him on air.

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[conclusion.]

David Frum, a conservative personality, recently had a debate with Steve Bannon, known for his brand of populism that propelled Trump to the White House. The topic was the future of the populist movement. In his retrospective analysis, Frum hoped to show that this populism won’t work because:

“It has no care for the people it supposedly champions and no respect for them. It will deliver nothing—not only because its leaders are almost invariably crooks (although they are), but because they have no plans and no plans to make plans.”

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David Frum and Steve Bannon at their recent debate.

What Frum might be missing here is that it isn’t about plans — it’s about the resonance of the message. Beale’s fall coincided with the moment he tried to pivot to a bedrock of tangible values and concepts. The masses don’t want an outlet resulting in solutions but instead a lightening rod for their emotions.

Beale was more exciting as a histrionic soothsayer, not a well reasoned philosopher.

Other People’s Takes:

 

Author: Casual But Smart

I review the top 100 books, movies, albums, and games of all time.

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