Sidney Lumet's Classic "Network"
Essay by Greg Ng
The 1970s in Hollywood were a fertile time. The emergence of the director, as a legitimate artist in his or her own right, shifted focus from the studios, which by the ’60s had grown formulaic and unadventurous in their output, to a new generation of writers and directors, whose concerns and experience were markedly different from the conservative voice of the movie industry at that point.
Due in part to falling profits and the rise of television, a vacuum arose in the industry that opened the door for fresh ideas. Hollywood was redirected and, as a result, American cinema entered a new age – an age when box-office success did not necessarily preclude sophisticated content in a movie, an age when political discourse was not relegated to non-existence or tokenism, or a niche-market. The period between 1969 and the beginning of the 1980s saw American cinema, inspired as it was by international filmmaking (such as the French New Wave), offering critical, ambiguous and highly artful movies.
At its most ambitious, the New Hollywood was a movement intended to cut film free of its evil twin, commerce, by enabling it to fly high through the thin air of art. The filmmakers of the ’70s hoped to overthrow the studio system, or at least render it irrelevant, by democratising filmmaking, putting it in the hands of anyone with talent and determination. (1)
However, as the decade passed, the promise of real change receded; the status quo prevailed. As Peter Biskind puts it, in his book Easy Riders and Raging Bulls: How the Sex ‘N’ Drugs ‘N’ Rock ‘N’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood,
although the decade of the 70s contains shining monuments to its great directors, the cultural revolution of that decade, like the political revolution of the 60s, ultimately failed. (2)
Robin Wood, in Hollywood: from Vietnam to Reagan, argues that the Vietnam War, among other things, focussed Western society’s dissenting voices, simultaneously discrediting ‘the system’ and emboldening the dissenters. However, like Biskind, Wood acknowledges “this generalized crisis in ideological confidence never issued in revolution. No coherent social/economic program emerged.” (3)
Commercial imperatives once more came to play their part in shaping the output of the industry, as previously fêted directors suffered box office losses and investment money turned to more secure propositions. Thus, a central tenet of political economy – i.e., the inherent censorship of the mass market – prevailed. Ironically, one of the films that stands as a testament to ’70s Hollywood’s freedom and ambition, Sidney Lumet’s Network (1976), depicts precisely this phenomenon.
Network is an example of a hugely successful and critically acclaimed feature film that offers a critique of television, ideology, radical chic and the consequences of American-led post-war capitalism, whilst being funny – no mean feat, and something only barely achieved in the current day by the likes of Michael Moore, et al.
Lumet’s direction and Paddy Chayefsky’s script lambaste the ills of the modern world (couched within the fast-paced soliloquies delivered by the stellar cast of Peter Finch, Faye Dunaway, Robert Duvall and William Holden) and are oft times prescient, predicting the rise of ‘reality television’, and the subsequent decline of both production and social values.
One of the central themes of Network – the decay of society and of love, concurrent with a plunge in standards and morality of the audience, which represents the world (in keeping with the mindset of both the film and its characters) – proves salutary in explaining what happened to Hollywood after the ’70s. Just as the collapse of the old studio system in the ’60s was precipitated by a change in demography and values, so too has a drift toward social conservatism and the continuing project of marketising everything affected our age.
When Howard Beale (Peter Finch), the ageing news anchor for Union Broadcasting System, is fired due to poor ratings, he announces to his friend and network executive Max Schumacher (William Holden) that he intends to “blow my brains out, right on the air, right in the middle of the 7 o’clock news” (4).
Schumacher replies, “You’ll get a hell of a rating. I’ll guarantee you that. 50 share, easy.” He facetiously begins to run with the idea: “We could make a series out of it. ‘Suicide of the Week.’ Oh, hell, why limit ourselves: ‘Execution of the week.’”
Beale joins in, “Terrorist of the Week”, and Max’s eyes get distant; he temporarily becomes the visionary commercial television producer:
I love it. Suicides. Assassinations. Mad bombers. Mafia hit men. Automobile smash ups. The death hour. Great Sunday night show for the whole family to see. It’d knock fucking Disney right off the air.
The joke, these days, has poignancy. Chayefsky’s blistering script seems aimed fairly and squarely at commercial television, and its producers. Network is presented as a voracious predator that consumes everything in sight for the sake of audience share. Nothing is sacred – not least of all love, as is demonstrated amply by the soulless programming executive, Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway). “The only reality she knows comes at her over the television.”
Network portrays a dark vision of an industry that has largely come to be. The dumbing-down of the news, from informative to entertaining (“television is showbiz”, says Christensen to Schumacher) is prescient of the rise, in the late 20th century and early 21st, of infotainment. The UBS news is transformed into a near-variety show, with a soothsayer, a psychic detective and the star, the “Mad prophet of the airwaves”, Howard Beale.
The disturbing thing about this, for Chayefsky, runs along the lines of neo-Marxist criticism of the day. To quote Stuart Hall:
the cultural industries do have the power constantly to rework and reshape what they represent; and, by repetition and selection, impose and implant such definitions of ourselves as fit more easily the descriptions of the dominant or preferred culture. That is what the concentration of cultural power – the means of culture-making in the heads of the few – actually means. (5)
Television’s ruthlessness and its lack of discernment in its search for ratings, as joked about by Schumacher and his ‘death hour’ idea, has fulfilled his prophecy. ‘Reality television’ abounds, with its low production costs and supposed interactivity – its invitation for audiences to spectate at someone’s demise, and even play a part in it.
Network satirises ‘the revolutionary underground’, and the script dextrously portrays the ease with which the likes of Christensen incorporate such movements into a commercial framework, in order to make them a marketable commodity.
Says Diana, to her staff, as she pitches the idea of what we would now call a reality television show,
Look, you’ve got a bunch of hob-goblin radicals, calling themselves the Ecumenical Liberation Army who go around taking home movies of themselves robbing banks! Maybe they’ll take movies of themselves kidnapping heiresses, um, hijacking 747s, bombing bridges, assassinating ambassadors!
She goes on to tell them, “I want angry shows. I don’t want conventional programming on this network. I want counter-culture. I want anti-establishment.”
Christensen, television incarnate, has, as such, the mind of the market. She slots, programmes and categorises everything, reducing totalities to glib, trite, preclusive stereotypes (or soundbites). At her meeting in Los Angeles, with the aforementioned hob-goblin radicals, she introduces herself: “Hi. I’m Diana Christensen – a racist lackey of the imperialist ruling circles.”
“And I’m Lorraine Hobbs – a bad-ass Commie nigger”, comes the reply.
Her idea is staggering and speaks of the sheer hubris of unfettered, market capitalism – as immanent in television itself. Without a moral concern in her body, Christensen pitches: “Each week, we open, with an authentic act of political terrorism.”
The concept, in 1976, may have been preposterous. But in 2005 it is quite literally inconceivable. There’s a war going on – let’s not forget – a war on terrorism. And in wartime, as they say, the first casualty is the truth. The adage here is admittedly stretched, but the degree of self-censorship that began, and has prevailed, across the world’s media since 2001 is evident.
Hollywood seems nowhere near touching subjects like this, much less laughing at it. It’s not just the subject matter; it’s the way it is delivered. Lorraine Hobbs answers back to Diana’s pitch with uncertainty:
The Ecumenical Liberation Army is an ultra-left sect, creating political confusion with wildcat violence and pseudo-insurrectionary acts, which the Communist Party does not endorse. The American people are not yet ready for open revolt. We would not want to produce a television show that celebrates historically deviational terrorism.
Chayefsky’s script is simply much more ambitious, and verbose, than anything Hollywood offers up for contention these days. Network’s assumption that audiences could respond positively to what is essentially a dense, wordy screenplay, set amongst current events and asking uncomfortable questions, was vindicated. It won three Academy Awards, including Best Screenplay. (6)
Hollywood’s ‘best and brightest’ have rarely offered much in the way of criticism since the terrorist attacks of September 2001. One cannot help but think of Christensen’s pitch here; might we assume that ‘911’ would have gotten the Network nod, as entertainment? In fact, the years that followed saw Hollywood directors, such as Ridley Scott, supplicate themselves to the Pentagon message, with films that glorified American actions around the world and supported the US government’s view of history. (7)
With the release of 1969’s Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper), American cinema came of age. The late 60s had seen a crisis in the studio-dominated film industry: attendances were down and
the old men who ran [the studios] were increasingly out of touch with the vast baby boom audience that was coming of age in the ’60s, an audience that was rapidly becoming radicalised and disaffected from its elders. (8)
The influence of the French New Wave, among others, provided inspiration for aspiring auteurs like Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, Sidney Lumet and Terrence Malick, to name but a few. The late 1960s saw a break from the old, studio-dominated conventions of film making, and for the first time placed the director in lights, over and above the studio, and producer.
By the time of the late 70s, after the critical (and sometimes commercial) successes of films like Taxi Driver (Scorsese, 1976), et al, the ‘voice’ of the new directors was sounding more confidently. Network is nothing if not a collection of polemics. As New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael said, “Chayefsky isn’t writing a farce: he’s telling us a thing or two.” (9)
Howard Beale’s “latter day prophet, denouncing the hypocrisies of our time” takes to the air with paternalistic sermons:
Because less than three percent of you read books. Because less than fifteen percent of you read newspapers. Because the only truth you know is what you get from over this tube. Right now there is a whole, an entire generation that never knew anything that didn’t come out of this tube.
Kael savages Chayefsky’s preachiness here and decries the tendency of the time towards “vindictive, moralizing condescension”, citing “Beale’s denunciations of the illiterate public (Chayefsky apparently thinks that not reading is proof of soullessness).” (10) She continues to assert that television has not rendered people soulless, just as cinema did not, or the theatre.
The film treats us to the high farce of the nominally ‘revolutionary’ Ecumenical Liberation Army in contractual negotiations with their lawyers and UBS’s – an extremely comical (if dark) satire of the fickle nature of the expedient marriage of the political and the commercial.
When Beale uses his nightly tirade to denounce the fact that “the Arabs control 60 billion dollars of this country”, and rants an extensive list of Arab interests in US capital, including “com[ing] back at us with our own dollars to buy General Motors, IBM”, et al, he blows the deal for Frank Hackett, the corporate head of UBS (played perfectly by Robert Duvall), the show and his own career.
Michael Moore’s Palme d’Or winning ‘documentary’, Fahrenheit 911, essentially spoke to the same phenomenon – that is, the coincidence of US and Saudi corporate interests, and its enmeshment with foreign policy, and the challenge to the notion of national sovereignty this presents . However, Moore’s treatment is characteristically shallow, and not given any sense of historical context. Without an acknowledgement of the history of the US-Saudi relationship or of the role America has played in promoting the very system that allows for the situation he bemoans, Moore himself turns into the populist evangelical that Peter Finch portrays with finesse in Network.
Network’s ultimate concern – the negative impact of corporate culture and the mass market on society, and the processes by which it affects this – is essentially a mirror for what happened in Hollywood after the 1970s.
By the end of what was a dazzling period of innovation and artfulness – delivering films such as Easy Rider, M*A*S*H* (Altman, 1970), Badlands (Malick, 1973), The Conversation (Coppola, 1974), Mean Streets (Scorsese, 1973) and Network, Hollywood succumbed to commercial pressures – eschewing unhappy endings and highly political content and commentary in its films for ‘the blockbuster’ – usually dated to the release of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, in 1980.
Film narratives switched back to happy endings, resolution and dominant societal paradigms reasserted themselves. One only need look at the young George Lucas’ spectacular rise to fame with Star Wars (1977), an overly simplified fairy tale of ‘good vs. evil’. (11) Gone was the subtlety and sophistication of Taxi Driver or Badlands, with their confused and often violent protagonists, and their near-nihilistic challenges to bourgeois morality, and back were the classical ‘heroes’ of the big screen, whose essential goodness was never in doubt and who always triumphed over the ‘bad guys’.
As Biskind suggests, the flowering of American cinema, only too brief, had ended – and Spielberg had ‘won’.
Because the fact of the matter is that although individual revolutionaries succeeded, the revolution failed. […] As Coppola later recognized, the market selected and shaped these directors, snuffing out the careers of those whose films were not commercial, and boosting and molding the careers of those that were. (12)
It seems only right to close with one of Chayefsky’s more incisive soliloquies, delivered by the owner of UBS, Arthur Jensen (Ned Beatty):
You have meddled with the primal forces of nature, Mr. Beale, and I won’t have it. Is that clear? You think you merely stopped a business deal. That is not the case. The Arabs have taken millions of dollars out of this country, and now they must put it back. It is ebb and flow, tidal gravity. It is ecological balance. You are an old man, who thinks in terms of nations, and peoples. There are no nations, there are no peoples, there are no Russians, there are no Arabs, there are no Third Worlds; there is no West. There is only one holistic system of systems. One vast and interwoven, interacting, multi-variant, multi-national dominion of dollars. Petro-dollars, electro-dollars, multi-dollars, Reichmarks, Rubles, Pounds and Sheckles.
It is the international system of currency which determines the totality of life on this planet. That is the natural order of things today. That is the atomic, and sub-atomic, and galactic structure of things today. And you have meddled with the primal forces of nature. And you will atone.
You get up on your little 21 inch screen, and howl about “America”, and “democracy.” There is no America, there is no democracy. There is only IBM and ITT and AT&T. And Dupont, Dow, Union Carbide, and Exxon. Those are the nations of the world today.
We no longer live in a world of nations and ideologies, Mr. Beale. The world is a college of corporations, inexorably determined by the immutable by-laws of business. The world is a business, Mr. Beale.