8 Network (1976) Dir. Sidney Lumet
Directors are habitually celebrated and idolised for masterpieces forged through the accumulative effort of cast and crew, much to the neglect of hundreds of highly skilled creative and technical bods. However, if a single behind-the-scenes figurehead is in need, the idol of this creation is the phenomenal screen writer Paddy Chayefsky. The concise and eloquent corporate speed-talking that thrives throughout Network is an unrelenting showcase of unrivaled talent.
I’ll give you the low down on the plot: Howard Beale is an aging anchor at UBS Evening News which is suffering from the most perilous of televisual bureaucratic maladies: poor ratings. In a mischievous and despairing event, Howard proclaims that he will commit suicide live on air the following week: “You ought to get a hell of a rating out of that. 50 share, easy.” The ratings soar and the sleazebags at the tip of the UBS pyramid detect a mother lode in the exploitation of Beale’s vitriolic blasts. Experimentally wheeled out again for one of many further broadcasts, Beale impassions the nation with his catch-phrase:
“I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”
The nation responds by fervently echoing his concerns (in this scene) and UBS label him ‘An Angry Prophet Denouncing the Hypocrisies of our Times’. Yet, ironically, his function is to aid the corp with its capital gains, he has inadvertently become Howard Beale™.
Ultimately, Howard is given his own prime-time slot and forcefully disrupts the network’s business interests as it attempts a vital merger with a foreign conglomerate. Together with this and highlighting the fearful power of the tube, Beale has ‘meddled with the primal forces of nature‘ and is met with fierce confrontation from Jensen, UBS Chairman. Howard is later shot live on air by a guerilla activist group as part of “The Mao Tse Tsung Hour”, a new fly-on-the-wall docudrama on the network.
The film ends with the narrator stating: ”This was the story of Howard Beale, the first known instance of a man who was killed because he had lousy ratings.”
I have, of course, failed to summarise a stunning sub-plot that personifies the insentience of an increasingly remorseless capitalist world through Faye Dunaway’s character, Diana Christensen: “All I want out of life is a 30 share and a 20 rating”. She is unable to show affection to her ‘love’ interest, Max Schumacher. The fiery exchanges between the two offer some of the most refined displays of Chayefsky’s skill: a parlance riddled with metaphor and melodrama.
The blackly-comic satire presented through this piece has chillingly become a reflection of our contemporary society. This is what makes ‘Network’ so awe-inspiring, it was a prescient warning that no one heeded.
Perhaps there is still time. I think this film comprises more value in today’s current climate thanks to the rise of the Occupy movement. If Beale’s fate is the result of his remarks being marketed and accepted as the frivolous groans of ‘the mad man of the airwaves’, we could avoid viewing the OWS (et al) movements as transient fads which stand to achieve nothing and thus prevent their “Bealesque” demise. We could make the corporations accept that it is them who have ‘meddled with the primary forces of nature’ and with humanity.