Did anything good come out of the 1970s? Please know that I am judging this solely based on film, and how Hollywood portrayed American culture and society at that time. If I were still plugged into academics like I used to be, I would suggest a course focusing on the United States in cinema during this decade. The only cinematic hope that I can think of to come from this time was Star Wars, which started with A New Hope being released in 1977. Then again, outside of the nearly disastrous 1978 Christmas special, the rest of the franchise debuted in the 1980s and beyond. I am on this little rant because I have seen some rough ones recently from this period, namely The French Connection (1971) and Taxi Driver (1976). Today, I bring you another entry, Network (1976), number sixty-four among the American Film Institute’s 100 Greatest American Films of All Time. To be fair, there are some serious and thoughtful moments in it that I will discuss. Otherwise, like much of what we were given between 1970 and 1979, it will not make you feel good about, well, anything.
Network begins with the revelation that long time UBS evening news anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch) is to be fired in two weeks. He does not take this turn of events well. Upon receiving it, he and his old friend and current boss, Max Schumacher (William Holden), go out and get drunk. The reason for Howard getting the pink slip is because ratings are dipping. In his inebriated state, he comes up with a solution that he believes will be sure to get millions to turn in: on air, he will announce that he is leaving and at the end of the fortnight he will commit suicide on live television. Max, being three sheets to the wind as well, does not take Howard seriously. The next night when he is on camera, neither do those in the control room despite Howard going off script and stating his intention to off himself. In actuality, nobody is paying attention and it goes over the airwaves. Once everyone does catch on, the ensuing uproar has the head network executive, Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall), wanting Howard gone immediately. Max steps in and says that it is his call, but Frank vows that this chain of command will change. He puts forward the requisite shaking up of the corporate structure at the next board meeting, much to Max’s dismay. His subsequent protests go largely unheeded. Hence, when Howard goes back before the cameras again, though he had been told to apologize, he instead goes on another tirade about how everything the audience sees is a bunch of crap. He uses more colorful language that I avoid. Instead of immediately pulling the plug on the signal, however, Max lets it go to spite the higher-ups. The crazy thing about these stunts is that Howard’s overserved prediction is proving correct. Ratings are hitting all time highs. This gets particularly noticed by Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway), director of programming for UBS. With millions of viewers watching their channel, she senses the opportunity for something even bigger. Her first obstacle is Max. They go out on a date and they sleep together despite him being married, and talk about the possibilities of making a quasi-news program based on Howard’s mad ramblings. Max is against it, wanting to return the evening news to something resembling normalcy. Instead, she goes over his head and persuades Frank. In turn, Frank fires Max, and the planned show goes ahead anyway. It becomes a sensation, with audiences around the country spouting Howard’s tag line that he roared when it was still in the more traditional format, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” At one point, he has people shouting it from their open windows into the street. Emboldened by this, Diana also touts a sort of reality show focusing on the activities of the Ecumenical Liberation Army (ELA), a domestic terrorist organization. She wants to film their violent acts and put them on television. Remarkably, the network goes for it. She cannot get enough of her work, though she does feel bad for getting Max fired, a person she confesses to growing up idolizing. Thus, they rekindle their affair, which has Max telling his wife that he is leaving her. They spend a weekend on the coast, though she will not stop talking about ideas related to UBS. In short, she is at the top of her field. What could go wrong? The wild card is Howard. On one of his shows, he starts yelling about how Arabs control everything and how they are about to buy the company that owns UBS. He instructs his audience to write the president to request that this not be allowed to happen. This prompts a summons from the nearly faceless chairman of the board, Arthur Jensen (Ned Beatty). He informs Howard that the former news anchor is messing with the natural order of things. Yet, he does not want Howard fired. Instead, he desires for Howard to go on spouting his rhetoric, but to focus it on how corporations run everything and that there is no such thing as democracy. It is a ratings catastrophe for UBS, but they cannot get rid of Howard because Arthur likes the madman. This turn of events also takes a toll on Diana’s relationship with Max. He points out, essentially, that she is too focused on her work, leaving little time for him. He leaves her. She spends little emotion in mourning because she and Frank must deal with Howard. The ratings are what is important. Thus at the next meeting the idea of assassinating Howard on air is proposed. It is accepted, this is what happens, and the movie ends.
The main theme of Network is that television is awful. I mostly agree with this sentiment, modified by the fact that I have watched my share of it. It turns people into monsters, and by this rendering Diana becomes the antagonist in the story. Another thing Max tells her at the end is that she sees her life as some kind of script. When it starts going in a direction she does not like, she callously changes it as would a producer. There is no room for real love in her heart, and she all but admits to this being the case. In recent reviews, I have suggested that the reason for the terrible things going on in American society in the 1970s is because it was a decade largely in the wake of a great deal of cultural upheaval. Institutions were being questioned, Christianity and the Catholic Church among them. What strikes me about this movie in this light is the woundedness you see among all the characters. Diana is no different. She had basically been raised on television. The argument can be made that it was a God-less childhood. Look at the result? This is the sort of thing against which Howard is reacting. In one of his diatribes, he encourages the audience to do anything else but watch television. One thing he suggests is for them to turn to God, instead. I was cheered by this notion, though he followed it up with a few other self-destructive ideas. At any rate, Howard is a prophet of all the ills he sees in society. This is not just me, Catholic film reviewer giving you more religious allusions. At several moments he is called such, specifically being compared to Jeremiah. He is even said to be having visions of the Virgin Mary. This last bit is said in jest, of course, but it is a sign of what is missing from the film and the decade. Only God can heal such brokenness.
What Network is ultimately trying to tell you is that television is creating an unfeeling god that gives rise to more unfeeling people like Diana. The clincher is when they show Howard dead on the set of his show while other programming continues to play as if nothing happened. I prefer Max’s statement to the contrary of this state of affairs when he tells Diana that he is a human being and that his life matters. What a pro-life statement! It is because of that, despite its flaws and brief nudity, I recommend this one.