“I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”
If you’ve heard this at some point in the last thirty years, odds are it was inspired by the 1976 film “Network” a satire on the media and journalism at the time. It is often regarded as one of the sharpest film commentaries of the mass new media, and rightfully so. Though the film came out in the late 70s, and accurately forecasts how some media outlets operate these days.
Yet, the question that I’m left saying by the end of the film is: Did this really need to be a film?
The film begins on news anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch) announcing that he will be leaving Union Broadcasting System’s Evening News in two weeks, due to low ratings. After discussing the issue with UBS news division president Max Schumacher (William Holden), Beale announces the very next night on live television that he will commit suicide on the next broadcast.
This leads to Beale nearly getting fired, until Schumacher steps in and keeps in him on for at least one more night to apologize, only for Beale to launch into a long angry rant about how “life is bullshit.”
Ratings are now higher than they have ever been, and UBS decides to keep Beale on the air, so long as he continues to give these rants about how terrible the country is. Each night, increasing amounts of people watch Beale as he goes off in a rambling terror of how bad the world truly is.
Eventually, UBS’s lead programmers (Faye Dunaway and Robert Duvall) decide to slot Beale’s evening news show under the entertainment division, where the show is then renamed “The Howard Beale Show” and Beale is billed as “the mad prophet of the airwaves.”
As you can probably imagine, the show is a big hit.
When all this fame and power comes rushing to Beale, he begins to make demands of his audience and of the White House to stop a large Saudi Arabian company from buying out UBS. This causes the heads of UBS to fear what they’ve created, and to find a solution to this problem before it gets too big.
I think of two things when it comes to “Network.”
The first is how the film handles its satire of mass news media, particularly in how it shows that, when ratings are low, networks will forget about their basic functions of reporting the news, and try anything to get those ratings back.
While this is certainly something that happens even today, I can’t help but feel that the presentation of this satire leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
When I think of a great filmic satire, I think of “Dr. Strangelove,” “Duck Soup” and “Being There,” but not “Network.” The reason for this is that those three films are able to be satires, without ever trying to be satires.
In “Dr. Strangelove,” I felt like I was watching the president and his men try to prevent a nuclear holocaust. That the events were really happening, and that it wasn’t making the president look like a moron just to get some laughs. The president is played competently, has logical reasons for what he does and will do what it takes to prevent this disaster. It’s just that stupid things keep happening that make his plans go wrong.
To me, that’s good satire. The actions of characters flow naturally and lead to an ultimate message and commentary on what is wrong in our society. In the case of “Dr. Strangelove,” it is about how badly the Cold War was handled on both sides. With “Network,” while the commentary is there, it feels forced.
There are long stretched of dialogue talking about how terrible the world is, then immediately cutting to how popular this kind of stuff is, leading to more of it, and then even more of the same.
The message of the film is clear after the first few scenes, yet the film keeps going on with more of it, and that gets old fast.
Though I give credit to “Network” for accurately predicting the future of some media outlets, I can’t say that it’s a good satire, because of how forced and repetitive the satire can be.
The other thing that comes to mind on “Network” is the filming process. Specifically, the lack of any truly great filming techniques.
While the film has plenty of stars behind it, such as William Holden, Robert Duvall and Ned Beatty, they are never really given a chance to act.
The true star of the film is the script. Nearly every second of this film is backed with dialogue. There is never a quiet moment in the film, never a chance to sit back and take in what is being shown. Every new scene has more talking heads saying words that are meant to sound informative and well-thought out.
The problem with this is that there is so much more to filmmaking than just dialogue and commentary. For example, William Holden usually delivers his lines with the same straight look on his face, even when he’s scolding Faye Dunaway’s character. He doesn’t emote or even seem to feel. He just says the lines that were given to him.
This makes me think that “Network” would have worked much better as a radio-drama. I could see myself closing my eyes, just hearing the film, and still getting roughly the same affect as I would from watching it.
The phrase “show, don’t tell” immediately comes to mind. A film should, foremost, show the audience what is going on, rather than telling them. “Network” is almost all about telling the audience about the events that happen. While that might work for some mediums, like radio, it doesn’t work as well for film. Film is foremost a visual medium, and should try to tell as much of a story as possible through images alone.
In the end, I can appreciate elements of “Network,” like being able to look into the future, but the film leaves me with a feeling of lackluster filmmaking, and that the story of Howard Beale is probably more suited for radio than it is for the big screen.
Final Grade: C