Director: Sidney Lumet
Stars: Peter Finch, Faye Dunaway, William Holden
A television network cynically exploits a deranged former anchor’s ravings and revelations about the news media for its own profit.
Sidney Lumet’s classic 1976 film Network with an award-winning screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky, carries with it a very significant message about media. Even though it’s almost 40 years later that message is still every bit as relevant today. Media has changed certainly but what this film has to say has not. Television is essentially the same as it was, even as pictured in 1976, but there is a new media that has completely dominated the world we live in today – The Internet. What Network has to say about television can easily be applied to the internet of today.
The Popular Angry Pundit
Network tells the story of fictional newsman Howard Beale. In his late and rather bitter years, this news show has dipped in ratings so the owners of the network have decided to let him go. Depressed and going slightly psychotic, Howard Beale makes the bold statement that he’s going to kill himself on the air. In his apology for this statement he goes on about he was simply “all out of bullshit.” Audiences seem to like this new, angrier Howard Beale and feel that he voices their rage so the network keeps him on because of the huge boost in ratings. He continues to make these bold speeches, including the ever-famous “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” speech to an eager audience reaction.
It is important to note that Howard Beale is mentally ill by the time he makes his “I’m as mad as hell, speech.” His friends feel he needs to seek help, but the network refuses to allow it. Audiences want a crazy man ranting on television, not a “normal” sedate man reading the news.
We love angry people on the internet. Whether the passionate opinion they have is right or wrong we love to see them angrily defend it. Just today I read two articles about angry people on the internet. There was one an angrily unaccepting filmmaker upset that an actor turned down a role in his movie, and another about two actors starting a flame-war over some anti-gay sentiments. Then there is an entire subculture of YouTube and vloggers dedicated to “angry reviews.” In the world of video games we have popular people like The Angry Video Game Nerd, The Irrate Gamer, Angry Joe, etc. In the world of online film criticism, one of the more popular faces is that of Doug Walker – “The Nostalgia Critic”, popular for the anger he expresses at watching bad movies. Noticing a trend here to market the anger – the fact that these people voice their rage about games, movies, television etc.? Having run a media website and visited many it’s not hard to tell that angry reviews happen to get a lot more hits than positive ones. On this site we have Josh Hadley as our own angry pundit and there are plenty of people all over the internet that read his articles or listen to his shows not because they agree with him but because they are amused by how passionately he states his beliefs. Josh Hadley IS Howard Beale – even right down to the same perspective of the world, the same way they voice their point-of-view, and the same way they draw in audiences.
Every novelty wears thin, however. “Angry” reviewers do not have the standing as more varied people like Roger Ebert for instance. Just about everyone knows who Roger Ebert was but how many people are familiar with the angry internet critics of our modern age? The difference is not the technology or the exposure, it’s the fact that anger is not a lasting emotion. Like with the character of Howard Beale in Network, anger can draw an audience in and grab their attention but it won’t keep them around long – people crave variety. Look at the brief internet sensation that was “The Tourette’s Guy.” I don’t know if this guy actually suffered from a mental illness or not, but audiences ate up the entire shtick of a man just shouting profanities at everything. Not for long though because what has he done in the past few years? Nothing it would seem. There is also the internet scandals and dramas that arise from being an “internet personality” which is really a modern equivalent of a television personality. I’m not going to cover over the particular instances of those other than state the fact that most of them revolved around the fact that “OMG so-and-so said this on facebook/twitter and OMG the way people reacted!” Oftentimes they went “too far” with their anger and lost some of their audience. A conspiracy nut may get some initial interest that will quickly wane as people realize that these conspiracies are ALL this person has to say. Not unlike people who feel a television show or news program went “too far” and people stopped watching.
Don’t forget, and spolier alert, Howard Beale DIES at the end of the movie.
The World is a Business
In Network, Howard Beale goes on television to speak out against the corporation that owns this network. He criticizes a business deal they’re involved in and actually gets the audience to stop that deal. This brings in a heavy response from the company’s owner, Arthur Jensen (played by Ned Beatty for which he was nominated for an Academy Award). Jensen explains that the world is a business – that the business needs will outweigh personal opinions. After all, it’s money that makes the world function. Not ideologies.
Yes I posted the video clip above but I want to post the full text of Arthur Jensen’s speech because it is quite relevant to today’s times:
You have meddled with the primal forces of nature, Mr. Beale, and I won’t have it! Is that clear? You think you’ve merely stopped a business deal. That is not the case! The Arabs have taken billions of dollars out of this country, and now they must put it back! It is ebb and flow, tidal gravity! It is ecological balance! You are an old man who thinks in terms of nations and peoples. There are no nations. There are no peoples. There are no Russians. There are no Arabs. There are no third worlds. There is no West. There is only one holistic system of systems, one vast and immane, interwoven, interacting, multivariate, multinational dominion of dollars. Petro-dollars, electro-dollars, multi-dollars, reichmarks, rins, rubles, pounds, and shekels. It is the international system of currency which determines the totality of life on this planet. That is the natural order of things today. That is the atomic and subatomic and galactic structure of things today! And YOU have meddled with the primal forces of nature, and YOU… WILL… ATONE! Am I getting through to you, Mr. Beale? You get up on your little twenty-one inch screen and howl about America and democracy. There is no America. There is no democracy. There is only IBM, and ITT, and AT&T, and DuPont, Dow, Union Carbide, and Exxon. Those are the nations of the world today. What do you think the Russians talk about in their councils of state, Karl Marx? They get out their linear programming charts, statistical decision theories, minimax solutions, and compute the price-cost probabilities of their transactions and investments, just like we do. 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. The world is a business, Mr. Beale. It has been since man crawled out of the slime. And our children will live, Mr. Beale, to see that… perfect world… in which there’s no war or famine, oppression or brutality. One vast and ecumenical holding company, for whom all men will work to serve a common profit, in which all men will hold a share of stock. All necessities provided, all anxieties tranquilized, all boredom amused. And I have chosen you, Mr. Beale, to preach this evangel.
Like it or not that is how the world is run – by corporations. There’s an upcoming merger with Time-Warner and Comcast that will create just one big corporate mass and there’s not a whole lot we can do about that. Like television, if one plans to make money on the internet then they play by the rules of those who have the money. It’s not ideal and often restrictive but that’s capitalism. Even the boldest of websites have had to let staff go not because they weren’t a good person but because of their impact on ad revenue.
WE Are the Illusion
But, man, you’re never going to get any truth from us. We’ll tell you anything you want to hear; we lie like hell. We’ll tell you that, uh, Kojak always gets the killer, or that nobody ever gets cancer at Archie Bunker’s house, and no matter how much trouble the hero is in, don’t worry, just look at your watch; at the end of the hour he’s going to win. We’ll tell you any shit you want to hear. We deal in *illusions*, man! None of it is true! But you people sit there, day after day, night after night, all ages, colors, creeds… We’re all you know. You’re beginning to believe the illusions we’re spinning here. You’re beginning to think that the tube is reality, and that your own lives are unreal. You do whatever the tube tells you! You dress like the tube, you eat like the tube, you raise your children like the tube, you even *think* like the tube! This is mass madness, you maniacs! In God’s name, you people are the real thing! *WE* are the illusion! So turn off your television sets. Turn them off now. Turn them off right now. Turn them off and leave them off! Turn them off right in the middle of the sentence I’m speaking to you now! TURN THEM OFF…
There’s a lot here that is relevant to the Internet age. We already know that every internet news site carries their own bias. Josh Hadley has pontificated time and time again about Fox News (or “Faux News” as he’s wont to call it) and the nature of their news reporting. There are sites like TMZ where if you ever hear the sentance “TMZ reports that…” you can be pretty sure someone is just making things up based upon an unsubstantiated rumor. There have been so many celebrity death hoaxes across the internet where several people have prematurely mourned the deaths of Eminem or Morgan Freeman. There are things like this:
You said it Abraham Lincoln. Just like you can’t believe everything you see on television, you can’t believe everything you see on the internet.
In Network, Howard Beale and his mental breakdown are made entertainment because of it’s sensationalism. Programming director Diane Christensen (Faye Dunaway) brings up the fact that there are plenty of crises going on in the world: civil wars, oil shortage, CIA spying, but the thing that makes the front page is a wacky ex-newsman. Nothing has changed in the world of media since 1976, in fact this “illusion” of information has only gotten more extreme over time.
How many times have you seen this on facebook? Someone posts something about “real world problems” to the extent of “Everyone is talking about Justin Bieber going to jail or Miley Cyrus shaking her ass but there’s wars going on and the NSA spying and…” Some people may “like” that post or leave a comment to the extent of “right on man!” and then immediately post a video of a guy getting hit in the crotch. Someone may say something to the extent that all this bullshit news is just a distraction from the real truth! Then again, truth is such a fickle word when you have so many news sites and bloggers and internet pontificates with conflicting versions of what “the truth” is. What makes this modern era so much more extreme is that there is MUCH more distraction than there was in 1976. We don’t just have 4 major television networks anymore – we have hundreds of cable television networks and an entire world wide web of useless things distracting us from the news that we don’t even know what news is anymore. It’s all an illusion. People spend so much time on the internet because all the fascinating things to learn and see and laugh about are so much more fascinating than their own drab lives. The amount of time I spend browsing sites like Cracked only shows that I don’t even consider myself an exception to the seemingly ADD-addled norm of today’s society.
Then there is the concept of the “fanboy” (or girl but it’s still a rather gender neutral term). In Network Beale asks his massive audience to letter-bomb congress to stop some corporate shenanigans. They do, en masse, but it’s pretty evident it’s not because they actually care about what’s going on because it’s not going to change the entertainment they receive. Rather, they do this because they are fanboys, an army of 60 million fanboys blindly following out the orders of their idol.
To quote the speech from above: “This is mass madness, you maniacs! In God’s name, you people are the real thing!” I see this all the time on the internet, especially with the community of reviewers I choose to associate myself with. The audience’s lack of individual perspective. “Well, so-and-so said this is a terrible movie/game/comic/song so even though I’ve never heard of it I’m automatically convinced that it is.” People no longer choose to experience new media for themselves – they just watch a review and make their opinion based upon whatever their idol says. New critics are hesitant to put forth a new perspective on a product because the second they do they get flooded with fanboy responses which essentially say: “Well the OTHER critic I’m a fan of did it first which completely invalidates your points.” Beyond internet criticism there is the fact that “Well this person I follow on twitter said this so that’s automatically my point-of-view of the world. To put it another way “Alec Baldwin tweets that gay people are bad and I like 30 Rock so that means all gay people MUST be evil!”
Network is a rare film in that it’s message has not lost relevance but has evolved with time. While in 1976 television consumed most of people’s lives – that’s not the case today. In fact millions of people (myself included) watch most of their television programming on the internet. The internet is the most important means of mass communication today and what Paddy Chayefsky and Sidney Lumet had to say about the blurred lines between information and entertainment has only become that much more relevant today. If you haven’t seen Network by all means do – and pay attention to what the movie has to tell you.