Analysis of ‘Network’

Network is a 1976 satirical black comedy written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Sidney Lumet. It stars Peter Finch, William Holden, Faye Dunaway, and Robert Duvall; it costars Ned Beatty, Beatrice Straight, and Wesley Addy.

Finch won a posthumous Best Actor Oscar, Dunaway won Best Actress, Chayefsky won Best Original Screenplay, and Straight won Best Supporting Actress. Network is ranked #64 among the 100 greatest American films according to the AFI, and it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” In 2005, Chayefsky’s script was voted by the two Writers Guilds of America one of the 10 greatest screenplays in the history of cinema.

A link to quotes from the film can be found here.

The opening and closing credits remind one of those of 1970s TV shows. The narrator (Lee Richardson‘s voice) fittingly sounds like an anchorman.

The essential point to the satire in the film is how the news media is reflective of the profit motive. Lower ratings for a news program, or any other TV show, mean lower profits, and this can’t be tolerated.

Longstanding United Broadcasting Systems (UBS) anchorman Howard Beale (Finch) is to be fired because his ratings have gone unacceptably low. This, among other personal problems in his life, which have arisen over the past six years or so (the death of his wife in 1970, his alcoholism), has driven him to contemplate suicide. Here we see how, under capitalism, human life is less important than profit.

Beale announces his plan, on his last TV appearance, to “blow his brains out” on live TV, shocking everybody. He is pulled out of his chair while he angrily protests with foul language and even punching someone among the crew…behaviour that’s in satirical contrast with the stereotypically calm, unemotional anchorman (in fact, soon after this incident we see a number of anchormen on TV screens discussing this sensational breaking news with the usual calm objectivity).

His announcement of his plan to kill himself on live TV has also done something that hasn’t happened to him in years: it has raised his ratings. Again, death is often more profitable than life.

His friend and fellow TV veteran, UBS news division president Max Schumacher (Holden), cares about him and wants him to have a dignified last moment on the air. Schumacher is also infuriated that Frank Hackett (Duvall), who works for the Communications Corporation of America (CCA), has made him lose face during a speech to stockholders with the CCA and UBS, planning to take over his division without having consulted him. So Schumacher’s putting Beale back on the air, instead of firing him outright, is also meant as a big “go fuck himself” to Hackett (as Schumacher explicitly says).

Again on live TV, Beale carries his newfound notoriety further and says his reason for claiming he’s intended to kill himself is because he’s run “out of bullshit.” He keeps saying “bullshit” over and over again during the broadcast, shocking some and amusing others. UBS’s ratings soar, and now we go from capitalism favouring death over life, to capitalism favouring vulgarity over “respectable broadcasting.”

Indeed, Diana Christensen (Dunaway), the ambitious new head of the network’s programming department, is thrilled with how Beale’s capricious and eyebrow-raising antics are pulling UBS out of its ratings slump by, paradoxically, dumping it into the gutter, so to speak. She wants “angry shows” that will allow the common people to vent their frustrations–not out of any sympathy for their problems, of course, but out of a wish to exploit them to make more money for UBS.

This wish of the media’s to exploit public discontent is paralleled in today’s world, where people can share all the memes, videos, and newspaper articles they want on Facebook, Twitter, etc., content that exposes all the injustices of the world, and vent all the people’s anger at those injustices…

…but nobody ever does anything about them.

Social media is more than willing to allow us to vent our anger (violations of “community standards” notwithstanding, of course), for our continued use of Facebook, Twitter, etc. ensures the continued making of profits. Christensen would have UBS do the same thing with Beale.

She manages to convince Hackett to go along with her plans, since he sees things only in terms of dollars and cents. Schumacher, who doesn’t want to see his troubled friend exploited for profit, doesn’t agree with her. Be that as it may, though, he is charmed by her beauty, and flattered by her claim to have had a crush on him when he once lectured at the University of Missouri. The two of them will begin an affair.

His infatuation with her, a narcissistic woman driven only by ambition and caring little about people or human relationships, is allegorical of our infatuation with TV, pop culture, movies, and the media in general (and in today’s world, we can expand all of this to an obsession with our relationship with social media). As Schumacher himself says to her when he finally comes to his senses and ends their affair: she’s “television incarnate.”

One of Christensen’s angry, radical targets for exploitation is a far-left terrorist organization called the Ecumenical Liberation Army (ELA). She sets up a TV show for them called “The Mao Tse-tung Hour.” One member of the ELA, Laurene Hobbs (played by Marlene Warfield), who calls herself “a bad-ass commie nigger,” finds herself deeply invested in the financial success of the show, always harping on angrily about her “distribution charges.”

In this satirical take we can see how even once-dedicated Marxists can sell their souls to capitalism. Consider the individuals and governments that have compromised with the market or to imperialism. Consider the Che Guevara T-shirts sold, and the Marxist books sold by eager capitalists who couldn’t care less how many people get radicalized by them…as long as the sellers are making a lot of money. Christensen, like capitalism, poisons everything she touches.

To get back to Beale, we find him having what would seem to be divine inspiration…of course, he’s simply losing his mind when hearing voices in bed, but it’s amusing to entertain the thought that he’s gone from suicidal alcoholic to the “mad prophet of the airwaves,” who is “denouncing the hypocrisies of our times.” In this way, we’re rather like mad King Lear who thought of Tom o’ Bedlam as a “noble philosopher.”

This merging of a news media man with a prophet is a satirical masterstroke for Chayefsky. The paradox of juxtaposing the lying corporate media with a ‘truth teller’ who has been ‘touched by God’ is coupled with the equivalency made between two messengers that are slavishly, uncritically followed by the masses.

This hilarious mixing of contradictory…and not-so-contradictory…elements is intensified and symbolized by Beale’s sudden fainting spells. When we first see him swoon, it’s brought on by extreme stress and his growing mental instability. Every time after that, as we see on “The Howard Beale Show,” it comes across as his divinely inspired ἐνθουσιασμός.

Before the show is set up, he’s already getting followers. Hackett and Christensen are thrilled, though Schumacher is trying to stop them from exploiting Beale. Hackett calls the mad anchorman’s rantings and ravings “a big-titted hit,” commodifying Beale as one would commodify the large breasts of a porn star. In this way, Hackett is demonstrating a character orientation that Erich Fromm called “the marketing character,” someone who uses people as commodities to profit from.

Fromm explains: “For the marketing character everything is transformed into a commodity–not only things, but the person himself, his physical energy, his skills, his knowledge, his opinions, his feelings, even his smiles. This character type is a historically new phenomenon because it is the product of a fully developed capitalism that is centered around the market–the commodity market, the labor market, and the personality market–and whose principle it is to make a profit by favorable exchange.” (Fromm, page 388)

Fromm elaborated on this elsewhere: “In the marketing orientation man encounters his own powers as commodities alienated from him…The way one experiences others is not different from the way one experiences oneself. Others are experienced as commodities like oneself; they too do not present themselves but their salable part.” (Fromm, page 53) Hackett sees himself, as a slave and hatchet-man for CCA, as a commodity; he also sees Beale as a commodity.

Everyone is worried about where Beale is, since he has unaccountably wandered off in the rain, like a wild, inspired prophet. Schumacher is worried about his friend; Hackett and Christensen are worried about their ‘product.’

Finally, Beale shows up at UBS for his next live broadcast, soaked in rain and in a coat and his pyjamas. He looks in the camera and says the famous line: “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take this anymore!” This is his command to his followers, who are to shout it from their windows. Of course, people all over the US are shouting the line, and Christensen is thrilled that Beale is stirring up all this emotion.

Again, though, it’s just a meaningless channeling of popular rage; it achieves nothing but an improvement in UBS’s ratings. The “not gonna take this anymore” isn’t any more conducive to revolution than “The Mao Tse-tung Hour.”

The death of Edward Ruddy (played by William Prince), one of the old guard of UBS and someone sympathetic to Schumacher’s idea of how to run the news honestly, is the subject of Beale’s first appearance on his new show, a farce of TV commercialism including other shows of the ‘prophecy/fortune-telling’ theme that Christensen has concocted. His show begins with the studio audience chanting, like obedient automatons, Beale’s “mad as hell…” catchphrase.

What Beale has to say is, in all irony, utterly true: the replacement of Ruddy–and the decent, respectable journalism that he and Schumacher represent–by Hackett, Christensen, and their for-profit news as entertainment is an abomination and growing social evil, a prophecy we can see as very real in our media world today. Still, Beale’s audience is interested only in the spectacle he puts on, not the content of his message. This is an all-too-true observation of our experience of the media today.

Beale tells them that everything they see and hear on the TV is fake…a perfectly true judgement, but this truth doesn’t move his riveted audience one bit. They want to be amused, not informed. They want to be led by him, not to think for themselves. They listen to him not to be enlightened; they listen to him for the mere sake of listening to him.

So when he tells them, like a good prophet, to go to God, go to their guru, go to themselves…they’d rather just stay rapt watching him and not move a muscle without him. He tells them to turn off their TVs, as they of course should do, turn it off right in the middle of the sentence he’s speaking…but of course, they won’t.

He is the true and false prophet, all rolled into one.

His ecstatic fainting seems staged, but that’s OK with his audience.

So, why all of this hero worship of Beale, with the entertainment gained from watching his wild antics, without listening to his message or taking it seriously?

The psychological state of his followers can be described in terms of a combination of the ideas of Lacan and Kohut. The TV screen, on which Beale is seen, is a symbolic mirror for his viewers. In admiring “the grand old man of news,” his audience is transferring their idealized parental imago onto him. This one-on-one staring at the image on the screen thus puts them in the Imaginary Order.

Now, this transferred ideal parental imago is an internal object his audience has of their fathers; it’s also an ideal-I seen originally in the mirror reflection, but now moved onto the TV screen. So in worshipping Beale, his audience is actually projecting their unattainable ideal, the narcissistic version of themselves, onto him.

Such narcissistic projection onto TV celebrities is the satirical basis of Network. Instead of us communicating with each other, listening to the words of others and sharing our own words with them, we’d rather just gaze in awe at images on a TV screen (or, in today’s world, images on a phone or computer monitor). Instead of maturing and integrating with society and culture (the Symbolic Order), we’d rather have a one-on-one relationship with a face on a screen that only seems to be looking back at us like the specular image of a mirror–a regression back to the Imaginary.

Though Schumacher would protect his friend from Hackett’s and Christensen’s exploitation of him, and though he wants to preserve an ethical way of presenting the news, he is nonetheless infatuated with Christensen, the film’s beautiful personification of the charms of TV. Because she is “television incarnate,” his looking at her face is like looking at a TV screen with mesmerized eyes. He is as drawn to the allure of television, in a symbolic way, as Beale’s audience literally is to him.

Schumacher’s infatuation with Christensen has devastated his wife, Louise (Straight, whose brief scene expressing her hurt rage was all that was needed to win her an Oscar). We see, in the scene of his confession of his adultery to her, how the media destroys human relationships–a fake one-on-one relationship replaces real relationships.

So indeed, as good as Schumacher is, he too is lured into the seductive trap of the media. For even the best of us can be sucked into staring stupidly at a screen. Christensen’s beauty and charms are a narcissistic mirror of how he’d like to see himself. His relationship with her, therefore, parallels Beale’s relationship with his idolatrous audience.

Now, Beale starts out at the lowest of the low in his life, as an alcoholic widower facing the loss of his job and contemplating suicide. Then, it’s the very wild antics of his, those that were merely his reaction to his low point, that have pushed him over the edge of that low and raised him, paradoxically, to the top.

In a number of posts, I have compared the dialectical relationship between opposites to the head and tail of the ouroboros. In Network, Beale’s suicidal ideation is the serpent’s bitten tail; his meteoric rise to fame is a move from that tail to the serpent’s biting head.

Of course, Beale carries his newfound fame and influence too far for CCA’s comfort. On one show, he discusses a plan that the conglomerate has to allow an Arab takeover of it in exchange for some much-needed money. This time, his audience does listen to him, and they do his bidding to petition the US government to stop the Arab takeover. Hackett, Christensen, and especially, CCA head Arthur Jensen (Beatty) are most upset with Beale.

Beale is taken to meet Mr. Jensen, who curiously is dressed like a man from the late nineteenth century. One is thus reminded, by his choice of clothes, of the robber barons of the era.

He takes Beale into a large conference room, where all the CCA big brass make their decisions. He dims the lights for the right dramatic effect (the scene’s darkness also parallels Beale’s scene in bed when ‘divinely inspired’ for the first time). Then Jensen rebukes Beale for having “meddled with the primal forces of nature” (i.e., stopping the CCA deal with the Arabs).

Jensen gives a long speech about how, apparently, capitalism is the Guiding Force, the pantheistic Essence, of the entire cosmos. The universal Oneness of money pervades all, it would seem. There are no nations or peoples; there is only the global, cosmic market, which permeates every atom of existence.

This equating of capitalism with God is yet another satirical masterstroke of Chayefsky, for not only does it comment on the universal worship of the Almighty Dollar, paralleling our worship of TV, computer, and smartphone screens, and of the media in general, but it also prophesies the neoliberalism that was only nascent in the mid-1970s, and is ubiquitous and in full flower now…une fleur du mal. More than even that, it links the authoritarianism of religion with capital.

Everything that people were “as mad as hell” about in the early-to-mid 1970s–the bad economy, crime, etc.–can be connected to the oil crisis of 1973, which ended the prominence of the Keynesian economics of 1945-1973 and saw the beginning of the end of the welfare capitalism of the time. OAPEC brought about an oil embargo in response to the West’s support of Israel during the Yom Kippur War, a move that in turn raised the price of oil and caused the first of two oil shocks.

This move of OAPEC is why Beale doesn’t want the Arabs to take over CCA and UBS. Jensen will not, however, have Beale stand in the way of fulfilling the neoliberal prophecy. In fact, he’d have Beale evangelize it on his TV show.

Jensen is now the new god inspiring Beale, it would seem.

Fittingly, when Beale does his next show, instead of giving rousing speeches that galvanize his followers, he talks about the gradual decline of Western democracy. Our lives, he says, will become increasingly meaningless and valueless.

Now, such a prophecy, starting in the mid-1970s and continuing until now, in the 2020s, has been perfectly accurate. First, there was Reagan’s union-busting in the early 1980s. Then, his and Thatcher’s deregulating and tax cuts for the rich allowed millionaires to become billionaires who could control the government all the better.

Next, the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc (recall Beale’s prophecy that communism is finished even as of the 1970s), along with the reintroduction of the market in China and Vietnam in the 1980s, meant the Western governments no longer needed to provide welfare capitalism to appease the working class and stave off socialist revolution. The imperialist capitalist class could do anything to anybody, and with impunity. (Indeed, as Beale says, the US is as strong as ever, and will continue to be.)

Hence, Clinton’s gutting of welfare in the mid-1990s, the disproportionate incarceration of minorities, the allowing of mergers and acquisitions in the American media (aptly prophesied in Network, in CCA’s takeover of UBS), and the first “humanitarian war” in Kosovo in 1999. The Patriot Act, as part of the global “war on terror,” would continue to erode Americans’ democratic freedoms, and would be re-authorized by Obama, with the NSA surveillance of emails and smartphone messages that was exposed by Snowden.

Assange‘s Wikileaks exposure of American military abuses in Iraq (via Chelsea Manning) has unleashed the wrath of the Western political establishment, and his shameful incarceration and persecution have jeopardized the future of journalistic freedom. Now, thanks to the not-so-benign agenda of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, fear of a disease with a survival rate of about 99% has goaded people into taking dubious, hastily-produced vaccines.

Beale is right: we’ve lost a huge amount of democratic freedom thanks to the rise of neoliberalism, and our lives have become meaningless and valueless. It’s the truth, but it’s a depressing truth. Accordingly, the ratings for “The Howard Beale Show” are dropping. Naturally, CCA wants to get rid of Beale, but because Jensen likes the message Beale is preaching, he wants him to stay on the air in spite of the drop in profits. Hackett, Christensen, et al thus decide to have Beale assassinated on his show by members of the ELA.

Beale, thus, has come full circle: he has gone from wanting to kill himself over poor ratings to being killed by others over poor ratings. He has gone from the bitten tail of the ouroboros to its biting head, then down the serpent’s coiled length (which symbolizes a circular continuum between the extremes) back to the tail.

It is fitting that the film ends with TV screens showing not only his bloodied body, but also commercials like the classic, “He likes it! Hey, Mikey!” Life Cereal ad. Beale is as much a commodity as a cereal is.

Network is more than a film. It is a prophecy of our times.

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