Film Review: Network (1976)

Hamza Waqas

Network is a gripping, engaging, prophetic film that continues to be relevant today, some would argue even more so than before. It focuses on the decline and decay of the news industry at the hands of corporate interests. Written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Sidney Lument, the film aptly captures the sentiments of those in the industry that have tried to resist the commodification and sensationalization of the news. When the film first came out, it was given bad reviews by those in the television industry; however, the film later won several awards, for the screenplay as well as in the acting category.

Network tells the story of how UBS, a fictional news network that has trouble staying profitable due to low ratings, chooses to distort the news to make it more entertaining. Howard Beale (played by Peter Finch), a troubled veteran news presenter, announces on national television that he is going to take his own life on air. Meanwhile, the head of the news department, Max Shumaker (played by William Holden) is facing budgetary issues, due to which the managing director of the news network, Hackett (played by Robert Duwal), decides to restructure his department without his consent. Max tries to defend the news and the way it’s presented and is as a result at risk of being fired. An up-and-coming producer named Diana (played by Faye Dunaway) sees Howard’s announcement (that he’s going to shoot himself on live television) as an opportunity and aims to capitalize on the situation by taking over the news division. She allows Howard to freely rant and rave against society on a new special segment. Howard soon embraces his new role as “an angry prophet denouncing the hypocrisies of our times”. He is tormented by various hallucinations and epiphanies that are then narrated by him on air. The news network shows no real concern for Howard’s mental and physical health and maintains that they should continue to do whatever is necessary to get ratings. Howard continues to speak his mind with relative freedom until one day he seems to overstep his boundaries. He says something that upsets people in the highest corridors of corporate power. Soon, the contradictions within the Network’s approach towards dealing with low ratings become unavoidable, resulting in violence and tragedy.

Like any great film, Network (1976) makes us question prevalent societal norms. As a student of Marxism, I feel inclined towards the idea that art should aim to inspire radical reform, or depict reality as it is and act as a counterweight to capitalist propaganda. We see throughout the film that it successfully challenges the notion that privatized mainstream media in modern capitalist society works in the interest of the public. At the beginning of the film, Max and Howard have a discussion in which Max ironically mentions the need to introduce ‘The Death Hour’. He suggests that they should actively glamorize and sensationalize violent crime on the news and exploit it for ratings, something that we in the 21st century are perhaps familiar with. In the film, the sensationalization of the Ecumenical Liberation Army; the ‘Mao Ze Dong Hour’, and other distortions of current events are done for profit.
The priorities of those in charge seem to be clear; however, the content they create serves a demand. This begs the question: why is death in demand? Why do we seem to enjoy vicariously experiencing terror and violence through our television screens? Perhaps our indifference is a byproduct of the increasingly brutal society we live in, where everyone seems to be caught up in a rat race for profit and power, blinded by their own ambitions without a care to spare for real human experiences and relationships. In the film, members of the top brass of the large news network are often rejoicing over each other’s setbacks, they scheme and seem to be lying in wait for the other to slip up so that they can move to positions of greater power and influence. People throughout the film, including Max and ultimately Howard too, prove to be expendable.

Towards the end of the film, Max claims that Diana, who leads the restructuring of the news division without Max’s consent, fails to see people as people and is “indifferent to suffering; insensitive to joy”. The film in some ways suggests that consumers of mainstream cable television are no different. The audience in Howard’s show, for example, continues to cheer and parrot what he says, namely, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore”, failing to really acknowledge the words of a man pouring his heart out on national television who only weeks ago was willing to take his own life on air. Even when in one scene he passes out, the live audience continues to cheer. The film skillfully and subtly demonstrates the degree to which they (we) have been dehumanized. It presents modern life as primarily marked by indifference and devoid of empathy. Whether the people understand what Howard was getting at when he said the words “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore” or not, the feeling or sentiment expressed by Howard had a seemingly universal appeal. Due to how alienating and cruel modern life and capitalist society is for the average person, people heed Howards’ on-air request, go to their balconies, and express their rage in public.

One of the aspects of the film I found problematic was the depiction of Laureen Hobbes, a black power activist, and the far-left group the ‘Ecumenical Liberation Army’. To my understanding, the film intended to use these characters to show how profit-oriented television will commodify and essentially destroy even the most radical of ideas and commercialize them. The film is an interesting take on the media’s influence and the inherently corrupting nature of capitalist expansionary strategies. What troubles me is not why these characters are used and for what purpose, but how it is done. The movie perhaps inadvertently makes or hints at moral judgments about historical personalities and groups such as the black panthers, the black liberation army, and Angela Davis. I also felt that the only overtly violent character in the film, Ahmed Khan, reinforces racist stereotypes about African American Muslims. Whether this was a conscious decision on the part of the filmmakers is unclear, but I feel that regardless of their intentions some specific scenes do villainize black Muslims, as either violent or disorderly, and they portray legitimate social movements that articulated collective radical dissent as ultimately self-serving. Filmmakers should be conscious of these biases and be more sensitive when dealing with matters of race and social justice. Despite some aspects of the film being problematic, I enjoyed watching the film and would highly recommend it. The gripping performances make it safe to say that there isn’t a single dull moment.

Network tells the story of the death of informative news content in the modern age. The film suggests that the institution that the public relies on for information regarding current affairs, politics, health, and safety, etc., cannot remain functional if it is primarily driven by the need to generate profit and that it will eventually lose its very essence. I feel that discussions about the film can serve as a segway to more radical discussions about the potential for media that focuses on education and development rather than chasing ratings. The film identifies several problems, with both the industry and society as a whole. I guess it is up to us to look at the news media landscape of today in our part of the world and find possible solutions.

This film review was originally written in 2019.

Hamza Waqas is an activist and a student of liberal arts at Beaconhouse National University. He is interested in issues of public policy, urban planning, and politics. Hamza is the Culture Desk Head at the Students Herald.

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