Network: What Charlie Sheen and Howard Beale Have in Common

Today I'm watching and reviewing Network, in honor of the late great Sidney Lumet, who died yesterday morning.  Network captured the hearts and minds of audiences in 1976, as well as four Oscars (Posthumous Best Actor for Peter Finch, Best Actress for Faye Dunaway, Best Supporting Actress for Beatrice Straight, and Best Screenplay for Paddy Chayefsky).  It also comes in at #348 on the TSPDT list.

Network is the story of a newscaster, Howard Beale, who learns that he has been fired from his job, and will be replaced in two weeks.  After announcing live that he will be retiring, he then adds that he's going to kill himself on the air in a week.  This is, understandably, not kosher, and the television executives decide that was his last broadcast.

His old friend Max, however, is in charge of the news division, and he gives Howard the chance to go with dignity, and to make a few goodbye statements on air before handing the reins over to his successor.  Howard goes a little off book, and gives an impassioned speech about how life is bullshit.  Despite the fact that viewers are Outraged by the cursing and whatnot, their ratings go through the roof.

Diana, a clever but cold television executive, decides that they should take advantage of the publicity and give Howard his job back and let him make his own editorial comments (and eventually have his own show).  This leads to a speech that I think I'm required by law to include in this review.

Right.  Here it is.  It succeeds in capturing the emotions of the US in the 1970s, and is an eloquent piece of writing, as well as a great bit of acting.  But the really interesting thing is how much we, the 2011 viewers of this film, can identify with its sentiments.  36 years later and we're dealing with the same issues and crises that we dealt with back then: we have the same concerns about the future, and the same worries about the present.  Yeah, Howard is clearly unstable and one step away from becoming the "mad prophet", but God help me if I didn't get all stirred up and emotional when they show all the people leaning out their windows and voicing their frustrations.

So Howard gets his own show and is a ratings superstar, despite the fact that his ranting and raving is simply the voice of a man on the edge of a total nervous breakdown.  He becomes the messiah of the television generation.  And the television network exploits his instability.

It's not long, however, before he starts to preach about the death of democracy and the dehumanization of the American people -- which most TV viewers don't necessarily want to hear about.  The ratings begin to fall, and the network needs to figure out a way to get rid of him, after one of the higher-ups makes it clear that Howard Beale will not be taken off the air.  So they decide upon an assassination, and Howard is shot live on the air by two members of the Ecumenical Liberation Army, "the first known instance of a man who was killed because he had lousy ratings". (How great is that ending line?)

Random Musings:

  • Wait...did those control room people seriously not hear a word of his suicide threat?  Really?  I know when you have a job like that you learn to tune the newscasters out, but you'd think, "I'm going to blow my brains out on the air a week from today" would have caught their attention.

  • So I'm pretty sure that the one lesson I've learned from the 1970s is that if you see a girl in her early twenties wearing a beret, run like hell, because nine times out of ten she's an heiress who's been brainwashed by a fringe nationalist group.

  • Diana, you really want to make a television show about guerrilla terrorist organizations?  Really?  Can you even imagine what would happen if someone suggested that today?  "Yeah, I think we should make a show about the beginning, we'll show live footage of suicide bombings, and then the rest of the episode will delve into the drama behind the action." No.  I don't care how brilliant a TV exec Diana is supposed to be, this is the dumbest idea I've ever heard.

  • "You know, Barbara, the Arabs have decided to jack up the price of oil another 20%...the CIA has been caught opening Senator Humphrey's mail...there's a civil war in Angola...another one in Beirut...New York City's still facing default...they finally caught up with Patricia Hearst...and the whole front page of the Daily News is Howard Beale." Wow, a lot's changed since 1976.  If you cut out the bit about Patty Hearst and changed Howard Beale to Charlie Sheen,'ve pretty much got 2011 in a nutshell.

  • Geez, Robert Duvall is really in shout mode in this movie, isn't he?

  • Holy crap, they've taken Howard's moment of apoplectic rage and turned it into a variety show catchphrase. Ew.

  • Oh my God, Faye Dunaway, can you please shut up and stop talking about your stupid show mid coitus?  Please and thank you.  You make me angry.

  • I kind of love Max's wife.  Because he's being a real asshole and she's telling him off -- no!  Don't hug him!  He's a jerk!  Kick him out of the house!  He's acting like he didn't do anything wrong.  Grrr...

  • Wait a minute.  So they're having contract negotiations for the Mao Zedong Hour (in my head this show becomes the Mao Zedong Comedy Hour, but that's not the point).  The Communist lady is trying to get more money out of the deal (???) and the kidnapped heiress is right there in the room with them all?  If they know where she is, why don't the police come and take her back to her family so she can be unbrainwashed?  And seriously, I can't let this go: why do all kidnapped heiresses have to wear berets?  Is it a uniform?  But I have to admit, the concept of guerrilla leader bickering with the Communist over distribution rights is all kinds of hilarious.

  • I'm sorry, the image of a bunch of adults in formal wear chanting, "We're number one!"?  That's a little silly.

  • I love the visual of stained glass behind Howard on his television show...sing it, preacher man!

  • Wow...nothing like a little casual anti-Arab propaganda, eh Howard?

  • Wait.  Did people still send telegrams as a major form of communication in 1976?  I am far too young for all of this.

  • I know this is a serious point in the movie but dear Lord can we just take a moment and look at Robert Duvall's tuxedo?  It looks like something Jon Pertwee would have worn.

  • "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." Well that's bloody cheery, isn't it?

  • "I'm sorry I impugned your cockmanship." Oh I dearly wish I had an opportunity to use this sentence.

So that's Network.  This is the first time I've ever seen it, and I was struck by how much of it I could relate to.  Sidney Lumet managed to make a film that was not only incredibly socially significant at the time, but one that has maintained its relevance for over 35 years.  You can watch Network today and totally identify with the anger and anxieties that propel the film.  I love the concept of the media using an unstable man because his ravings generate interest.  That is an all too common phenomenon, and this film deals with it honestly and directly.  The sad truth is that celebrities behaving erratically have always been front page news, and still are, if Lindsay Lohan and Charlie Sheen are any indication.  It's also a film that's got a really great script and some stellar performances, completely deserving of the awards they've received.

So I just want to give a heartfelt thanks to Sidney Lumet, for making this film, which I enjoyed tremendously.

Thanks for reading, and remember to pop around tomorrow for My Life as a Dog.

Want to know more about the Top 1000 List?  Check it out and see if your favorites are here! They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?

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Luke said...

Such a great film.
Funnily enough, I sent a telegram to my fiance a couple of years ago for her birthday. It was very hard to organise because even the ladies at the post office were unsure of how to send it. I had to show them the section of the Australian Post Office site that proved telegrams were still around.

Audrey on a Mission said...

You have just destroyed my perception of Australia by insinuating that they don't have Kangaroo-a-grams. Thanks. ;)

But yeah, I asked my mom, and word on the street is that no one she knew used telegrams in 1976...for what that's worth. But I guess if you wanted to send a message to the White House, it's not like you could call them up, so a telegram would make sense.

Luke said...

I think you should make it your mission to send someone an actual telegram.

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