A few thoughts on Sidney Lumet’s “Network”

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While long acknowledged as a classic, Sidney Lumet’s Network feels newly relevant in the age of Trump, America’s first celebrity president, and the only who has successfully turned “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore” into a winning political platform.

As film critics Farran Nehme and Michael Phillips pointed out on Twitter this week, the film is not without its flaws. The sexual politics are atrocious, with cold-hearted news executive Diane Christiansen (Faye Dunaway) taking most of the blame for the fictional network UBS’s decision to sacrifice quality and integrity for ratings and relevance.

The social commentary is about as subtle as a sledgehammer. Screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky paints his satire in broad strokes, and some of the jokes are undoubtedly a bit too on the nose– most notably Christiansen’s decision to greenlight a series called the Mao Tse-Tung Hour, in collaboration with a band of left wing terrorists.

And yet, in many respects, no film better captures the current state of the American media, in which the line between news and entertainment is increasingly blurred and popular outrage is the coin of the realm.

Indeed, Network seems to anticipate everything from Fox News to The Daily Show. Once, the idea of Johnny Carson or David Letterman devoting large swathes of their late-night talk shows to lecture the audience about politics would have seemed ridiculous. Now Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Kimmel do so on a regular basis.

Nehme and Phillips both unfavorably compare Network to Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd, and the parallels are unmistakable. Certainly Andy Griffith’s Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes and Peter Finch’s Howard “Mad Prophet of the Airwaves” Beale share the same DNA, as characters who use mass media to stoke the people’s anger.

But where A Face in the Crowd is a more classic tale of demagoguery–It Can’t Happen Here meets Howdy DoodyNetwork is something else. The film explores the, in some ways, more profound idea that television can sublimate revolutionary impulses, making them trendy but harmless (maybe even useful) to the powers that be.

People may open their windows and scream into the night, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore,” just as Howard Beale tells them to in Network’s most famous scene. But the film makes clear they want to be angry more than they want to do anything about their anger, and the powers that be realize this.

So does Trump, who earned the support of many disaffected Americans with his brash, populist rhetoric, but as president has mostly embraced the status quo vision of the Republican Party.

Such enduring truths are why Network remains an essential, if imperfect film. Contrary to what Gil Scott-Heron said, the revolution will, in fact, be televised. But the screenwriters of the world will have trouble adapting this scenario to reality. 

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