Written by: Paddy Chayefsky
Directed by: Sidney Lumet
Mad, hysterical, despicable, totally unrealistic and yet astute. Trying to qualify Network in a nutshell is a hard endeavor. The difficulty is to reflect with soundness its ambiguities. How can one possibly explain that this movie is at the same time fascinating and exasperating? How can one possibly decipher the fact that Network is at some points excruciating to watch, very often lousily shot, undoubtedly too long a movie, and yet remains a must see? Well, in fact, it might be as simple as that: because it outrageously distorts the perceived reality of the television industry, this satire efficiently brings its viewers to some sort of objective reality about it.
With this incongruous and exaggerated lampoon of the television industry, the script-writer Paddy Chayefsky leaves the viewer with both an acrid taste in his mouth, and an interesting idea of the gears that could lead television to run amok. A very pessimistic idea obviously. To be sure, there is no way one would switch on his TV set after watching this movie, for television is depicted in it as a lawless economic machine in avid pursuit of good ratings.
After 15 years serving as the UBS network star anchorman, Howard Beale, “the mandarin of television”, is fired because of poor ratings. Having nothing in his life but his career, he then resolves to commit suicide on air, and publicly declares his deadly intention. The producers therefore decide to immediately throw him out of the network, afraid that this “grotesque incident” might have a negative impact on the network’s share of audience. They nevertheless let him come back on air for a respectable farewell. But instead of apologizing for his vulgar attitude, Howard Beale starts babbling about the “bullshit” of life. And directly following his rant, the ratings of his show soar. The producers hence bring him back as a commentator. This is the start of a dizzy fall of ethics at the network. This is the start of “the story of Howard Beale, the man killed because he had lousy ratings”.
In this movie, Diana Christensen, the attractive and careerist woman in charge of programming well incarnates the economically driven world of television. “I want angry shows”, she says without any shame, whether it is authentic footage of terrorist attacks or the delirium of a man who “articulate(s) th(e) rage (of the Americans) for them”. If good ratings impose brainwashing or propaganda of some sort, it is no problem for Diana. There is no doubt her character is way too caricatured. However, her position reflects a trend that has become prominent in the TV industry. “TV (indeed) is show biz”, and her obsession with audience is far from being a fantasy of the screenwriter. Even news is now polluted by the need to meet a certain reach. “Television is not the truth… Television is a circus, a carnival, a traveling troupe of acrobats, storytellers, dancers, singers, jugglers, sideshow freaks, lion tamers, and football players. We’re in the boredom-killing business », rightly asserts Beale in an impulse of lucidity.
In this film, the depiction of TV as THE mass medium par excellence is oh-so-relevant. There is nothing better for preaching the gospel than somebody prime time on television, as the many and tangled characters of Network have well understood. Why is Howard Beale, the « mad Prophet of the Airwaves » so important? Precisely because he’s on air, and by being on air, he can draw millions of people to get to their windows and shout : “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore”.
Some people would describe Network as a dark comedy. I wouldn’t. Network certainly has some amusing moments. However, if it had to be qualified, appalling would be the right adjective. It indeed forces its viewers to face a troublesome reality : even in its most grotesque scenes, Network is, somehow, a pretty exact and bewildering reflection of the television industry.