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Television has been the victim, so to speak, of a number of self-righteous attacks, in diverse mediums such as commentaries, books, fiction, and even on television itself. Most of these attacks centre around the idea that TV exploits the players on programs, as well as lowering the general taste and intellect of the culture. But no attack, at least cinematically, has been as vicious, black-hearted, and utterly nihilistic as Paddy Chayfesky`s Network (1976). The treatment of its subject is such that it is amazing this film was even produced.

Howard Beale, (Peter Finch) is an aging newscaster for UBS, the lowest rated network, and an industry joke. Due to descending ratings, he is fired, so on the next night he tells his audience that he plans to commit suicide on his last broadcast. The network is embarrassed, and the hope is that Beale will make an apology, and then make a graceful exit. But what ends up happening is a speech in which Beale says that "I simply ran out of bullshit.", and gives out numerous reasons why life is indeed a big lie. Shockingly, what happens is not more disgrace, but a huge ratings jump. People were fascinated to see a newscaster explode on-air.

At the same time, the programming director (a cold Faye Dunaway), is tirelessly searching for programs which will break UBS out of the ratings ghetto. On slate for next season is a show based on the real-life exploits of a counter-revolutionary terrorist group, complete with actual footage of crimes. Beale`s angry rages and their reactions strike excitement in Dunaway`s heart, and through clever corporate manoeuvring, and betrayal of the news director (William Holden), she soon has complete control of the news-hour, turning it from a "serious" show into a three-ring circus, complete with wild studio audiences, psychics, and sermons from Beale himself. Beale is able to perform such sermons because he is going mad. He thinks that an omnipresent being speaks to him; that this being chose him to spread the word to the people, "because you`re on television, dummy!" This development is reminiscent of Moses, and other prophets of spiritual and ultimate truth, yet the reason Howard Beale becomes so hot is because he is a spectacle unlike any other ever seen on TV. His "truth" means little.

I refer to Moses because it is quite clear that Howard Beale is a prophet in more ways than one. Insane he may be, but, as with Moses, Joan of Arc, Jesus Christ,and many others, he is not a phony; he is, instead, a person who sees the world in a wholly new, and (to his mind) elevated light. And the incredible irony of his success is that his speeches are brillantly-delivered and wickedly-composed attacks on the culture of television. The most powerful speech in this film is when the show has taken on its new form, and Beale rants on the passing of the old network president (i.e. the old-school media) and the new order of the major conglomerates. He makes the case that such large companies will use the propaganda machine which is television for ends which are more evil than before. He states generally that television is an utter lie ("We`ll tell you any shit you want to hear."), yet everybody gets all their "information" from the tube. The only way to save ourselves is to look for truth - in religion, in books, in ourselves - and to turn off the TV. These are words, and behavior, of a true messiah. Yet the whole idea of prophet, as part of a television program, is just a way for the network to turn a profit. The audience may scream out windows with him, they may send the White House telegrams when Beale pleas them to, but they are not true followers. If they were, they would turn off the TV, and do something else. Like all prophets, Beale is used, abused, exploited, and misunderstood, by the evil society. And, as with many others, Beale will be silenced, somehow.

This is the fourth time I`ve watched the film, and only now do I see any hint of problems. The script does seem as if it were edited. A number of transitions are abrupt, especially the relationship between Holden and Dunaway, and the overall arc of Beale`s rise to the top. I also have to admit to myself that I`m not as fascinated by Holden`s character, who is seemingly the most noble. He does have a few acidic speeches, as do all of the other characters, but he seems to be too much in the background, as an ineffectual sort who realizes that television is not nearly as noble as he thinks. Even though Holden is a legend, he is completely overshadowed by the casual coldness of Dunaway, the utter hatefulness of Robert Duvall (as a corporate lackey), the cleverness of Ned Beatty (as the conglomerate president), and, of course, the perfect blend of rage and restraint of Peter Finch.

Yet this movie is still a classic, and for an unfortunate reason: It is so vicious, so cold, so wicked, and so utterly, utterly barren of hope. Chafesky has nothing good to say about television, or the culture which was created by it. The message of this film is that the planet is nothing but a rotten pile of capitalists controlling the rest of us by pacifying us with the idiot box, and that it will only get worse, never better, because we are a bunch of ignoramuses who just want to watch misery on TV. Such bitter thought pains me to write, but those thoughts are what makes this film so powerful. This film dares to lay out all the cards and then set a match to them, without regard for anything, and with complete skill. Despite the exaggeration which is part of satire, the film is almost painfully realistic, and the dialogue is hardened, and angry. So if you are up for it, you must watch this important film.

David Macdonald

David Macdonald's Movie Reviews

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