I want you to go to the window, open it, stick your head out and yell: "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore!"
directed by Sidney Lumet
written by Paddy Chayefsky
We'll tell you anything you want to hear, we lie like hell.
One of the greatest satires not only of the 1970s but of all film, Network attacks what was already seen as the sacrifice of ratings for quality, and of the merging of corporations and government (though, of course, Eisenhower had warned us of that in the '50s). It was also a prophetic film, bringing the above to their logical extremes: the infotainment of Howard Beale's "news" show, and Arthur Jensen's "evangel" on the coming New World Order we now know as the WTO, IMF, NAFTA, whatever name we want to apply to globalization.
All I know is, you've got to get mad! You've got to say, "I'm a human being, goddamn it! My life has value!"
Let us examine the case of Howard Beale. A longtime anchor at the network and former giant of the field, he is obviously losing his touch. His wife died the year before, and now he is an alcoholic. He is washed up, and just waiting for his boss and friend Max Schumacher to fire him. The ratings are plummeting, thanks to the flashy content on the other networks and his own incompetence. Howard is fired, and while drunk that night with Max, half-jokingly contemplates how high the ratings would go if he commited suicide on-air.1 And so, the next day, Beale goes on air and threatens to kill himself. Which, of course, does two things--scares the hell out of Max and drives up the ratings. The next night, he rails against the bullshit of society, the hypocracy of television, and the generals state of decline. America falls in love.
If a man can look around this mad slaughterhouse of a world we live in and tell you that man is a noble creature, believe me, that man is full of bullshit.
In steps Diana Christensen, sent by the network to utilize this new "hit"--her plans essentially boil down to giving the kids the candy they want. Let Beale go on air as the new prophet, she says--folks eat this shit up. The implicit belief is that by owning this naysayer, by being the network to feature this Jeremiah, the network wins the unconscious trust of the viewers, which they are then free to exploit for profit. For Diana, it's all just feathering her nest. Meanwhile, she and Max begin an affair, threatening Max's marriage.
The affiliates will kiss your ass if you can hand them a hit show...We're not a respectable network. We're a whorehouse network, and we have to take whatever we can get.
When Beale exhorts the viewers to get angry with society, to go to the windows and shout, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore!", America goes wild. Here is our new prophet. Beale is the hottest thing on television. Soon it becomes a real sort of new age news revival meeting, complete with psychics and gossips and prophecies of doom. Diana introduces other shows, involving what we'd now call reality television, following the exploits of terrorists and Communists. It's all a hit, feeding into America's fear and anger.
Max thinks his old friend is being made a fool, but thanks to his boss Frank Hackett, Max is no longer in any position of power to stop the carnage. As Beale goes mad each night, Max slides deeper into a sickening anger.
We are no longer an industrialized society; we aren't even a post-industrial or technological society. We are now a corporate society, a corporate world, a corporate universe.
And so Beale one day gets word of a secret. A secret he has to share with the world. The parent company of his network--here we see the emergence of the media monopoly--is setting up deals with Arab businessmen, merging international entertainment, oil, business, and so on. (And, given the climate of the oil-shortaged 1970s...) So Beale blows the lid off of the deal.
And that's when God shows up.
Well, not God exactly. But god-like. Arthur Jensen, head of CCA, the parent company of the network who has one hell of a stake in the deal, summons the mad prophet before him:
You have meddled with the primal forces of nature, Mr. Beale, and I won't have it, is that clear?! You think you have merely stopped a business deal - that is not the case! The Arabs have taken billions 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 immane, interwoven, interacting, multi-variate, multi-national dominion of dollars! Petro-dollars, electro-dollars, multi-dollars, reichmarks, rins, rubles, pounds and shekels! 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 subatomic and galactic structure of things today. And you have meddled with the primal forces of nature, and you will atone! Am I getting through to you, Mr. Beale? You get up on your little twenty-one 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. What do you think the Russians talk about in their councils of state - Karl Marx? They get out their linear programming charts, statistical decision theories and mini-max solutions and compute the price-cost probabilities of their transactions and investments just like we do. 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. It has been since man crawled out of the slime, and our children will live, Mr. Beale, to see that perfect world in which there's no war or famine, oppression or brutality. One vast and ecumenical holding company, for whom all men will work to serve a common profit, in which all men will hold a share of stock, all necessities provided, all anxieties tranquilized, all boredom amused. And I have chosen you to preach this evangel, Mr. Beale.
Howard Beale: Why me?
Arthur Jensen: Because you're on television, dummy. Sixty million people watch you every night of the week, Monday through Friday.
Howard Beale: I have seen the face of God.
Arthur Jensen: You just might be right, Mr. Beale.
And Beale, overwhelmed, goes on television to preach the goodness of coprorate governance
Because in the bottom of all our terrified souls, we know that democracy is a dying giant, a sick, sick dying, decaying political concept, writhing in its final pain. ...Well, the time has come to say, 'Is dehumanization such a bad word?' Because good or bad, that's what is so. The whole world is becoming humanoid, creatures that look human but aren't. The whole world, not just us. We're just the most advanced country, so we're getting there first. The whole world's people are becoming mass-produced, programmed, numbered, insensate things...
And thus, in telling the other side of the truth, the nihilistic element, his ratings plummet. The network panics. And they realize the only way to bring up the ratings is to go with the original idea: kill Howard Beale on live tv. And so, the terrorist lead-ins for Beale's show gun him down.
We're in the boredom-killing business.
I've seen few films which have been so damned prophetic.
Faye Dunaway .... Diana Christensen
William Holden .... Max Schumacher
Peter Finch .... Howard Beale
Robert Duvall .... Frank Hackett
Wesley Addy .... Nelson Chaney
Ned Beatty .... Arthur Jensen
Best Actor: Peter Finch (awarded posthumously)
Best Acress: Faye Dunaway
Best Supporting Actress: Beatrice Straight
Best Screenplay: Paddy Chayefsky
FACT: for his couple of scenes as corporate god Arthur Jensen, actor Ned Beatty was nominated for an Academy Award as best supporting actor. Though he didn't win, it must be unique to be nominated for what is little more than a bit part at the end of the movie. However, it is his speech, his ability to sound like the burning bush itself, that truely transforms the movie from a clever satire to a frightening prophecy.
Watching the movie
Extreme paranoia come to fruition.
1. Which only serves to remind me of Budd Dwyer's televised suicide in 1987, which I saw as a child on our local news station--the more they played that clip, the more their ratings went up.
This is one of my favorite movies, up there with Brazil, Dr. Strangelove, and It's a Wonderful Life. Yeah, I know, that last one kinda doesn't make sense.