Movie Review: Network
I watched Network last night on the advice of my friends in Occupy. More like insistence than advice, actually: they claimed I absolutely needed to see it, that it would blow me away with its prescience and wisdom.
Turns out they were absolutely right.
Here’s the thing, though. Given that Network was released in 1977, I’m hesitant to even suggest to young people today (defined as: younger than me) that they watch it because they it’s so true, its predictions are so spot-on accurate, that anyone who wasn’t alive in 1977 might not – probably cannot – appreciate how incredible it must have seemed back then. It might even seem boring to someone who is used to a world of Fox News and the internet’s filter bubble.
Then again, that’s not entirely true. It’s not just an amazing prediction about what TV and society would turn into. The other strength of the movie is that it keeps changing, in a mostly painful but sometimes hilarious way, from scene to scene, subplot to subplot, and that keeps it from being about just one idea or just one person.
A particularly powerful scene of a jilted wife really got to me, and even though the movie isn’t particularly about that relationship, the movie manages to make it work.
And the most ridiculous scene, which involves two revolutionary groups reading over a contract with a crowd of network lawyers, might also be the most convincingly depressing: we might have our own particular emotional and political issues and rebellions, but we are all cowed by the power of money.
If you wanted to force Network to be about one thing in particular, it would have to be an argument concerning the role of the individual in the modern world. Here’s the protagonist, Howard Beale, preaching to his television audience from this YouTube clip of Network:
… when the twelfth largest company in the world controls the most awesome goddamned propaganda force in the whole godless world, who knows what shit will be peddled for truth on this tube?
So, listen to me! Television is not the truth! Television is a goddamned amusement park, that’s what television is! Television is a circus, a carnival, a travelling troupe of acrobats and story-tellers, singers and dancers, jugglers, side-show freaks, lion-tamers and football players. We’re in the boredom-killing business!
If you want truth, go to God, go to your guru, go to yourself because that’s the only place you’ll ever find any real truth! But, man, you’re never going to get any truth from us.
We’ll tell you anything you want to hear. We lie like hell! We’ll tell you Kojack always gets the killer, and nobody ever gets cancer in Archie Bunker’s house. And no matter how much trouble the hero is in, don’t worry: just look at your watch — at the end of the hour, he’s going to win. We’ll tell you any shit you want to hear!
We deal in illusion, man! None of it’s true! But you people sit there — all of you — day after day, night after night, all ages, colors, creeds — we’re all you know. You’re beginning to believe this illusion we’re spinning here. You’re beginning to think the tube is reality and your own lives are unreal.
You do whatever the tube tells you. You dress like the tube, you eat like the tube, you raise your children like the tube, you think like the tube. This is mass madness, you maniacs!
In God’s name, you people are the real thing! We’re the illusions! So turn off this goddam set! Turn it off right now! Turn it off and leave it off. Turn it off right now, right in the middle of this very sentence I’m speaking now.”
After a while, the head of the news corporation decides he’s had enough of Beale’s message and decides to give him the corporation’s perspective on the discussion. From this YouTube clip:
You get up on your little twenty-one inch screen, and howl about America and democracy.
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.
What do you think the Russians talk about in their councils of state — Karl Marx? They pull out their linear programming charts, statistical decision theories and minimax solutions and compute the price-cost probabilities of their transactions and investments just like we do.
We no longer live in a world of nations and ideologies, Mr. Beale. The world is a college of corporations, inexorably determined by the immutable by-laws of business.
The world is a business, Mr. Beale!
It has been since man crawled out of the slime, and our children, Mr. Beale, will live to see that perfect world in which there is no war and famine, oppression and brutality — one vast and ecumenical holding company, for whom all men will work to serve a common profit, in which all men will hold a share of stock, all necessities provided, all anxieties tranquilized, all boredom amused. And I have chosen you to preach this evangel, Mr. Beale.
What’s incredible about Network is that, until possibly the last 2 minutes, none of it seems particularly unrealistic. It’s satire that rings so true that it manages to avoid the standard skeptical or baffled response. And although it is not uplifting, Network is incredibly thought-provoking and current.
Finally, the movie also has some show-biz advice for anyone trying to communicate a message. Namely, being consistently depressing and apocalyptic gets old, even if there’s an element of truth to it. It’s critical to balance that with hope about the power of individual action, sprinkled with outrage and impulsive energy.