“I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!”
I took some journalism classes a few years ago, and the thing that sticks with me the most is this notion of the role of the media: ideally to seek the truth and report it. I learned about newsworthiness, the idea that stories should only be covered if they affect a lot of people and hold meaning to the general public as opposed to fluff stories put forward for sensationalism alone or due to corporate interests. This was all really interesting, but I really didn’t need to take any classes; I could have just watched Network. An astounding satire that beautifully predicted the frenzied media cycle we find ourselves in today, Network is a smart, funny, horrifying look at the real forces behind TV news networks.
Howard Beale (played by Peter Finch) is a seasoned TV news anchor who finds that he has two weeks left before being terminated due to low ratings. Things really heat up when Beale announces that he will kill himself live on television for his final broadcast. What follows is a wild sequence of events for all parties involved, with Beale becoming a sort of celebrity doomsayer, preaching fiery sermons about the state of the system. He encourages everyone to become “mad as hell” and take matters into their own hands. It’s a calculated but impassioned plot that really highlights the tragedy of Howard Beale and his coworkers, but also of the general public as a whole. Network highlights the disconnect between network executives and their audience, resulting in a sensationalized and hollow media system beholden only to the almighty dollar.
It’s amazing to me that this movie came out in 1976. It warns us of too much corporate interference in journalism and how news can devolve into frivolous drama, a serious issue with contemporary reporting. The scene in which Diana Christensen (played by Faye Dunaway) proposes a show glorifying the actions of terrorist groups is terrifying because it’s so plausible and familiar. We could see this same idea being thrown around by networks today as journalists compete for ratings by reporting thrills over facts. For the past 40 years, the progression of the media has played out in a jumbled chase for ratings just as Network predicts, a transition only perpetuated by the Internet and more immediate, available news. Beale’s “mad as hell” speech feels just as relevant today as Americans grow frustrated with the perceived system and the elites pulling the strings, a sentiment very visible in our current election cycle as well.
I was really impressed by the unique structure and tone behind Network. I suppose you could call it a black comedy for its satirical approach to the subject matter, but the plot plays out like a tragedy. The rise and fall of Howard Beale in his final days of his career (and his life) seems to exemplify one last hope at changing the way things are going. One man takes it as his dying mission to preach honestly to the world and to make change to the crushing political and economic system at play, but he is literally gunned down for doing so (at the hands of the elites, no less). There’s something theatrical about the film as well – the way the prologue and the epilogue bookend the story in a somber way. It’s a very contained tale about a struggle for power and glory, with our hero completely at the mercy of the powers that be. There are wonderfully genuine monologues sprinkled throughout and an overarching sense of spectacle and artificiality.
This is also a movie where performances are particularly noteworthy. Both Peter Finch and Faye Dunaway took home leading actor Oscars for the film, and deservedly so. Finch brings such gusto and heart to his ranting monologues that these scenes have endured as the most memorable parts of the movie. Even in moments of reservedness, you get this sense of morality (coupled with despair) to Finch’s character that establishes such a fascinating individual to watch. Dunaway also delivers strong work as Diana, a nuanced role that has its share of corporate sleaziness while also compromising moments of humanity and complexity. On the whole, Network is a wonderfully acted film, and this helps carry the run time in some of its slower moments.
I’d consider Network to be among the best films to come out of the 1970s, and it’s certainly one of the most significant for what is accomplishes. No other film has explored these themes in such a gripping, tragic way. Howard Beale has become an iconic character in the history of cinema; his rage and desperation to overcome the forces that be is a powerful feeling that only rings more true as the film ages. Despite its despair and cynicism, Network still offers a glimmer of hope that individuals can make a difference in such a system, and that these forces are possible to overcome if we all just get mad as hell and say we’re not going to take it anymore.
Films Left to Watch: 945