Although I haven’t spent too much time writing about film on this blog yet, it is the medium which taught me most about learning to appreciate art. Teaching myself how to view a film outside of an I-just-paid-10-dollars-to-see-that-so-I-better-like-it mentality took me a little while but it was well worth it. I have let go of thinking that my opinion is the last word on a piece of art that took lots of people lots of time to create in favor of paying closer attention to see just how a director employs his tools (lighting, camera angles, actors, etc) in support of the story they are trying to tell. Many people watch movies to sit back and escape from their lives, but I try to approach the medium of film as similarly as I would to a painting, where liking it or not has little relevance in light of the creators’ efforts to present something to the world which I am now engaging with.
If you haven’t yet, take a couple of minutes to watch the clip above from Sidney Lumet’s 1976 masterpiece Network. Thirty-eight years later the idea of a television newscaster going off on a tirade might come across as obvious, but do not forget that the bicentennial year was not the age of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Bill O’Reilly. Screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky’s insightful (to the point of being downright prophetic) view of where mass media was heading in the seventies won several awards (including three of four best acting awards at that year’s Oscars and best original screenplay for Chayefsky) and has been preserved by the National Film Registry and recognized as one of the 100 greatest American films by the American Film Institute.
But what do accolades mean if the film isn’t worth it? This one most certainly is. Set up as a satire (a farce, even) on just how dehumanizing and callous people in the news industry can be, Chayefsky’s script shows the tensions that arise when ratings-losing newscaster Howard Beale (Peter Finch) disregards the career he has made and the respect he has earned to express how he really feels. The TV audiences sitting at home eat up this show of authenticity and Beale’s spirits lift long enough to keep him going, much to the chagrin of his friend, news division president Max Schumacher (William Holden). Beale is exploited by Faye Dunaway’s easily-excitable and just as easily-bored television-incarnate network programmer Diana Christensen as she creates a carnivalesque block of programming in which to feature the now-popular Mr Beale. To say more about the plot would be to either tell you things you’ve already heard about the film or to deprive you of the joy of seeing where this roller-coaster goes. Whether or not TV news was ever objective, Network presents the decline from objectivity into exploitative use-them-and-lose-them “reality” programming in a tight, two-hour film which is entertaining, sad, and profoundly honest about American television’s relationship with itself, its viewers, and the people who give us our news.