Network (Sidney Lumet, 1976)

11Feb12

Faye Dunaway (Diana Christensen), William Holden (Max Schumacher), Peter Finch (Howard Beale), Robert Duvall (Frank Hackett). Screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky. Directed by Sidney Lumet. Rating: 15. Running time: 121 minutes.

There’s an old debate in Plato’s Republic (‘old’ is putting it mildly; we’re talking BC here) on the question of whether the function of a craft is to benefit the craftsman or his subject matter. Socrates invokes our intuitions about medicine’s purpose being to cure patients, and argues for the latter. Thrasymachus responds with the example of a shepherd, and notes that obviously he only cares for his sheep insofar as it benefits himself, and rightly so. The question Network begs us to ask is: what is the function of journalism?

For newspapers and television channels are, ultimately, corporations with employees and shareholders, and to insist it is subsequently improper for them to seek financial reward seems absurd. In this respect, The Sun and The Mail are the ‘best’ news organisations in the UK.

And yet we also carry the Socratic, seemingly more dignified thought that news organisations must first and foremost do precisely that: produce news well. And on that front, The Times‘ multimillion pound losses are beside the point if its investigative work remains second to none.

The old school noble ethos of Edward Murrow is what we begin with here, but as ratings plummet under competition and the network’s business model proves financially unsustainable, the younger administrators want to replace the channel’s doctors with shepherds. And why not? Serious, standard news segments are swapped for the subjective and senile rantings of an increasingly fragile television anchor. And the madder he gets, the more people watch and the happier everyone is. Why care for dated conceptions of quality control when you are raking in cash and satisfying viewers more as you do so?

This is the question underlying Network, and to watch it in 21st Century America must be quite something. We’re fortunate in the UK to have few, if any, nutty media personalities that pass off their rantings as ‘news’, but in the age of Beck, Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly, the success of Fox News ensures the Network nightmare is alive and well.

And it is, largely, great satire. I assume it’s satire, without knowing the details of the 1970s US television scene. That would make more sense than it being a bizarre premonition. It’s a mocking exposure of the ethics of an industry in which the days of Good Night and Good Luck are long gone, as the dumbing-down picks up pace.

Dunaway is a delight; still way too sexy and ultimately unbelievable, but too God damn fun for us to care. She’s the engine behind the evolution, encouraging the men to get behind the New Era and thus triggering the general aura of madness that pervades every scene, and culminates in the surreal finale.

When Network stays in this territory, it’s fine. More than fine, it’s great. But occasionally – too often – it’s not happy to purely prop up these problems so well through humour and leave us to do the thinking. It also has to hurl loud monologues towards us stressing the “dehumanisation of society”. Make no mistake, this isn’t part of the comedy. They’re delivered in such a way that the satire is kept discrete from these extended rants that have unavoidable overtones of being endorsed by their writer. And that’s not what we signed up for. It’s not only annoying because the views that are propounded are pathetic (TV has destroyed our souls? Please); it’s also laughable that such messages lurk beneath the surface of a film intent on pointing out and belittling preachy speeches. Observe the change in the media. Mock it. But don’t add in extra bullshit baggage and psychological speculation about its likely cause and effects.

Broadly a bag of goodies, then, with one too many bitter exceptions. If I hadn’t sensed such a strong and silly agenda I would have enjoyed it a whole lot more.

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