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The politics of outrage: 45 years of Sidney Lumet film 'Network'

'Network' - Sidney Lumet

Very few films make it into that elusive category of ‘timeless classics,’ signifying that they have universal appeal irrespective of the cultural frameworks and the time periods within which the audience exists. Even fewer are labelled as ‘prophetic’ when that rare phenomenon occurs which makes a film more relevant as time progresses. Sidney Lumet’s 1976 satire Network belongs with the handful of other masterpieces that can be viewed through the latter lens.

Right off the bat, it is important to note that there is no Network without the brilliant screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky. It’s one of the greatest in the history of Hollywood, profound and playful at the same time. Chayefsky’s genius becomes more apparent with each passing year as the knock-off versions of his characters populate our screens and the events he predicted plague our very existence. The cutting-edge satire of Network has bled into our own world and has formed the fabric of our reality.

On the surface, the premise of Network is extremely simple for the modern viewer to grasp. We witness the resurgence of a fading newscaster named Howard Beale (brilliantly played by Peter Finch) as he slips into insanity. Although Beale exhibits clear symptoms of declining mental health and announces that he will blow his brains out on live television, Diana (Faye Dunaway) – a young, ambitious TV executive sees the opportunity of a lifetime. She insists: “The American people want somebody to articulate their rage for them”.

In an interview, Chayefsky once explained that the commercialised nature of the medium contributed to this phenomenon, stating: “Television is an advertising medium. If you’ve got a good show, you raise the price of your advertising. The top shows are paid something like $130,000 a minute, as opposed to a news program, which might get a fraction of that. If they had their way, they’d throw out the news altogether and keep putting the Bionic Woman on”.

Chayefsky claimed that the TV executives of that time period possessed some moral responsibility even though the programming was completely based on a profit motive: “Profit orientation entirely. Most people in charge of television today still retain a sense of responsibility. They try to balance some sort of noblesse oblige with the profit motive. What happens with the next generation—no longer Brahmans of television, just profit makers? That’s what Network is all about.”

Well, that next generation has nicely filled in the world that Network envisions. Modern America oscillates between the closeted ‘white power’ politics of Fox News and the anti-conservative agenda of CNN. The minority who claim that they are “independent thinkers” cite the likes of Alex Jones as their source. If you are not familiar with who Jones is, think of him as a new-age Howard Beale who not only moans about far-fetched conspiracy theories but also sells you his dubious health supplements to help you protect yourself from the dangers he manufactures.

“An angry prophet denouncing the hypocrisies of our time,” that’s how Beale is described and Alex Jones has built his entire routine on this central idea. However, there are more insidious examples of this taking place on more popular social media platforms like Twitch where political streamers just sit in a chair for ten hours and keep their audiences entertained by bringing up controversial content and raging against them. These streamers educate teenagers on the dangers of capitalism while raking in some serious money on a platform that is owned by Amazon. They are the hypocrisies of our time.

Chayefsky predicted these charlatans too, presented through the example of Laureen Hobbs – a Black communist revolutionary who advocates for the complete dismantling of the capitalist machinery. By the end, she is transformed into a bonafide capitalist screaming “Don’t fuck with my distribution costs!” at the news network’s lawyers in the supposedly secret lair of a celebrity terrorist group who commit acts of violence for their TV show every week.

Network’s most powerful scene is the fantastic five-minute monologue by Ned Beatty which was striking enough to earn him an Oscar nomination. He preaches: “There is no America. There is no democracy. There is only IBM and ITT and AT&T and DuPont, Dow, Union Carbide, and Exxon. Those are the nations of the world today.” Earlier this year, Ben Schott argued that Amazon and Facebook deserve seats at the United Nations. Truly, there is no going back now.

The Howard Beales of the world are expendable: Twitch streamers can be cancelled, Fox News fear-mongers can be fired with a sizeable severance package if their racism becomes too apparent but the system will survive because it is all that exists. We have been shouting “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” for decades now, throwing our money and our time at any Howard Beale we can find. Maybe it is time we stop searching for one.