‘Ratings don’t last. Good journalism does’ said CBS News veteran Dan Rather. The problem is power within a news network is with the producers and the producers are businessmen not journalists; ratings is all they have. Paddy Chayefsky and Sidney Lumet’s brilliant 1976 news media satire Network tells the story of when the quest for ratings goes down a macabre path, and how anger and outrage will always sell.
Network revolves around the chaotic demise, or some might argue rebirth, of long time newsman Howard Beale, played by an excellent Peter Finch, who after finding out about his imminent forced ‘retirement’ due to declining ratings goes on the air to announce that he plans to take lifes ultimate bow live on television. What follows is a plethora of shock, scandal and the uncomfortable, inhumane and greed ridden morality of a national television network who have stumbled into an unexpected Holy Grail of ratings.
The cast in Network is simply brilliant. Faye Dunaway plays the relentless Diana Christensen, a woman with a outlandish knack for finding television that sells, even terrorism gets a rather humourous showcase. Alongside Diana is Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall) a cold, hard money man with one eye on the books and one hand on the chopping block. Meanwhile, Howard’s long time friend Max Schumacher (William Holden) watches on helplessly at the chaos and exploitation of his one true friend, a solitary voice of sanity and the audiences only ally.
Paddy Chayefsky meticulously researched the news media network business and competition in anticipation of writing Network and it certainly shows. Some of the network boardroom discussions are poetic and intricately devious, with great intention it feels like they are speaking a foreign language at times. A wonderful linguistic barrier between the alien business and the raw humanity they choose to exploit.
Indeed raw humanity is what gives Howard his kick and the mantra that revolutionises his audience who he has rescuef from their culture of disenchantment, in his own words ‘I’m a human being God damn it! My life has meaning!’ He throws his very essence and sanity into his passionate performance, literally to the point of exhaustion. Some very clear parallels with the social freak show nature of contemporary reality TV bilge.
It’s important to remember that the setting of this film was post-Watergate, people really were ‘mad as hell’, it’s understandable the raw world-weary emotion of Howard’s booming tirades hold such appeal to an audience sick of the people in power’s scandalous behaviour; of course the sad irony is that is just another power grab scandal they are buying into, and Howard, unwillingly, another commodity to sell.
It’s a film where fundamental revolutionary anger and rebellious values of the disillusioned many overcoming the rich and powerful few just becomes another marketing gimmick, the ‘revolution’ is politely seated in studio chairs and told when to clap and when to shout; all the while the market profit grows. This is perfectly encapsulated in Howard’s invitation to ‘Valhalla’ by CCA Chairman Arthur Jenson (Ned Beatty) in which as if in the presence of a God he is reminded that ‘the world is a business’.
Just simply wonderful satire. A fantastic film that takes the viewer into that relentless world behind the camera and pushes some uncomfortable boundaries of how far down the rabbit hole television might go in the quest for ratings.