Movie Night With Urbaniak: Network

Seeing Michael Clayton got me in the mood to watch Network again. Both movies have an inciting incident where the key player of a powerful organization goes nuts (and is played by a Brit playing American), both movies feature great actresses playing soulless, corporate monsters, and both movies imagine the corporate agenda easily including capital crimes. And asking

  to watch Network is like asking a puppy to chase a ball: he’ll do it all night long.

In 1996 I showed my wife The Godfather. She sat there in silence for three hours while the movie unfolded. Afterward, her response was not wonderment or appreciation but anger. She was livid at the notion that, when I was a teenager, I could walk down the street on a given day and see a movie like The Godfather. The very idea that such movies existed, and were common currency, made her profoundly angry that Hollywood had let her down as they had, that the distance between my age and hers was the distance between, well, between going to the movies and seeing The Godfather and going to the movies and seeing Tron.

(In the interest of full disclosure, let me add that I was too young to see The Godfather, or even The Godfather Part II in theaters. My formative moviegoing experiences were The Poseidon Adventure, Papillon, The Towering Inferno and Jaws. But I know what she meant.)

But to finally come to the point at hand, I do remember when movies were serious entities to be reckoned with, and I did know it was a special time. In 1976, Network was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar — against All the President’s Men and Taxi Driver. The winner was Rocky, but just think of that. Not just Network, but All the President’s Men AND Taxi Driver, ALL IN THE SAME YEAR. Think of that.

And I knew Network was special when I walked into the theater as a callow 15-year-old, and I knew it was well-written and well-acted.  (And I can still feel the electricity that went through the theater during the “Mad As Hell” scene.)  What I did not know, could not know, is that, 31 years later, it would only get better. What seemed like bitter, outrageous satire in 1976 is now revealed to be sober, clear-eyed reportage. Howard Beall’s mad rantings still sound clear as a bell 31 years later, and only the vocabulary of the issues has changed — the issues themselves are exactly the same. Gas prices, terrorists, corporate takeover of our news services, assassinations for the sake of ratings, the nations of the world becoming irrelevant in the face of monetary hegemony, everything is exactly the same — in some cases, the issues have actually come into clearer focus than they were in 1976.

There is a scene mid-way through the movie where they first reveal the new “Howard Beall Show” and we see that the show no longer looks like a news show at all, but rather some kind of television carnival complete with sooth-sayer, and my wife (who was watching with us for the first time) said “This is the first thing in the movie that’s over the top.” Then, seconds later, Beall began his rant about how television networks are being bought by media conglomerates who will broadcast the most outrageous bullshit imaginable and call it news, and her criticism evaporated. The Howard Beall show exists, it’s on the air right now, and it’s called Fox News. Who would say, now, that the conversations in Network, about giving terrorists their own TV shows, about assassinating news anchors for the sake of ratings, about staging wars and coups and crises for the sake of ratings, who would say now that these conversations are wild, bitter satire? If anything, the scenarios presented in Network don’t go far enough, seem relatively benign and comical compared to the stunning, sickening mendacity displayed every minute of every hour on Fox News.  Who would be surprised to find out that Fox news had knowingly put a certifiably insane man on the air for ratings, or covertly sponsored a terrorist cell in order to get first dibs on the coverage of their atrocities, or contemplated the killing of one of their own anchors to boost their market share?

(As an added note, let me just say that, in 1976, when they showed “UBS” as a fictional “fourth network” in addition to CBS, NBC and ABC, my inner bullshit-detector went off — a fourth network? That’s ridiculous! I thought. Then, the movie goes on to demonstrate how that fictional “fourth network” would necessarily rely on sensation, lies, betrayals and prostitution of ethics in order to gain a foothold in the marketplace — which is, of course, exactly how Fox got where it is. One can easily imagine Rupert Murdoch watching Network in 1976 and, electrified, taking notes. “Yes! My God! It could work! It could work!”

Urbaniak notes: “Could a movie be any better directed?” and indeed, the pitch of the direction of Network is nothing short of miraculous. The entire cast, not known as “comic actors,” all give great comic performances, because they utterly believe in the situation they’re in and play it as seriously and clearly as possible, letting the script take care of the funny. The world of television is brought to vivid life (the production design alone is incredible), the camera is restrained, passive and elegant, there is absolutely no score (as in Dog Day Afternoon, Lumet’s previous movie). The result is a movie of incredible anger, raw power and immense sophistication. They really do not make movies like this any more.

In a movie sprawling with great, great acting, from the leads to the smallest of character parts, there is only one false note. Ned Beatty (whom I love) appears late in the movie to deliver the Big Speech about how money is the only law in the world, and, frankly, he blows it. He “puts on a show” for Howard, coming on like a blustering buffoon, when the speech cries out to be delivered in the most silken, persuasive tone possible. That speech should chill your bones, make you come to a great realization, and instead it gets played for cheap comic effect.

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