I don’t know whether or not I saw Network when it was originally released in 1976, nor for that matter, whether I watched it in whole or in part on TV sometime during the intervening four decades. Whatever the case, I watched it last night on Netflix. WOW. I can see why it won four Oscars, three for acting and one for Paddy Chayefsky’s screenplay.
And is plays interestingly against the current Trump and social media era.
The news anchor for UBS, Howard Beale, is to be dropped because of declining ratings. So he goes on air the promises that we will commit suicide on air in a subsequent broadcast. The network brass decide to drop him immediately rather than allow him to finish out his two weeks. Until...they learn that ratings went through the roof. They decide to bring him back and let him rant. He delivers a line that becomes his catchphrase and which has broken free of the film itself to enter pop culture if only in a minor way: “I’m as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!” [Cue Trump and his promise to make American great again.]
It takes awhile to get things adjusted, but the result is The Howard Beale Show, which includes on segment where Beale goes ballistic in front of a stained glass window and then slumps to the floor, but also features a segment involving a fortune teller, and so forth. The news has now been explicitly transformed into entertainment. At one point Beale discovers that CCA (Communications Corporation of America), the conglomerate which bought UBS, is itself going to be bought out by Saudi Arabians. [Remember, OPEC (Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries) had declared an oil embargo in 1973 in retaliation for the Yom Kippur War, and that put the Arab nations on the media radar screen in a big way. For that embargo hiked the cost of gas, killing the gas guzzler, and so reached directly into people’s pockets.] He goes on air, rants against the deal, and urges his listeners to send telegrams to the White House expressing opposition to the deal. Which they do.
This sends the UBS and CCA brass into a panic because they need the deal to go through for financial reasons. Arthur Jensen, chairman of CCA, sits Beale down and lectures him on his vision of the world. “describing the interrelatedness of the participants in the international economy and the illusory nature of nationality distinctions” (from the Wikipedia article). This is a world in which the interests of multi-national corporations rule over all – the world of globalization that would become US foreign policy in subsequent years? Beale buys in, hook, line, and sinker, but his audience doesn’t like his dehumanizing globalist message. Ratings begin to drop.
UBS wants to drop him, but Jensen insists on keeping him on the air. So, the network brass are caught between a rock, declining ratings, and a hard place, orders to keep the source of those ratings on the air. What to do?
Well, they decide to get tricky. Back when they were hatching The Howard Beale Show they also hatched The Mao Tse-Tung Hour, a docudrama featuring footage in which the Ecumenical Liberation Army commits terrorist acts – recall that Patty Hearst was abducted by the Symbionese Liberation Army in 1974, an event mentioned in the film. The brass go through back channels to arrange Beale’s on-air assassination by the Ecumenicals. And that more or less ends the film.
[And now we live in a world where people get killed on social media.]
That’s not quite all there is to the film. These media transgressions and divagations play out against the backdrop of a June-October romance (she’s no starlet and he’s no rich old banker) between two executive, the young woman who helms the transformation of the news into entertainment and the middle-aged man who used to run the news.
An exercise for the reader: The elements from this pre-internet pre-social media world and translate them into the world political and media environment. Interesting, sure. Prescient? Scary?