Network

by Paddy Chayefsky and Sidney Lumet

Network has been on my radar since that one screenwriting class I took in college, and afer watching it, I can see why it was referenced in the textbook. It’s an absolutely unflinching, and to my mind scarily prescient, look into how television, and the power that wields it, capitalism, flatten life and package it into easily-consumable packets of fluff, the only purpose of which is to create more value for the shareholders. Since this film was released in 1976, I’m not going to worry about spoilers, and I’m not going to review the film. That’s been done by literally everyone already. I just want to jot down this appreciation of the work to show you, dear reader, that I’ve seen it and that I got it, I suppose.

The one criticism I had of Network was that it got a little preachy, especially at the final conversation between Max and Diana. On further thought, I realized that my criticism falls into the same pattern that the viewers of the Howard Beale Show fell into when he started telling them the hard truths of global capital markets: did I chafe against the conversation Diana and Max had because it wasn’t real enough, or because it was so real in a metaphorical sense that it jarred me? I can’t be sure. The rest of the characterization, the motivations, the conversations, the acting, the pacing, and the cinematography were absolutely astounding, however.

It was strange to watch a movie that was so biting about television and about the generation that grew up watching it in 2019. The young people, the ones Diana’s age, are my parents, and TV has been a cultural force for over sixty years now. Much of the criticisms that Max had about kids these days could now be lobbed against the kids who’ve grown up with YouTube, Facebook, Spotify, and Instagram; in fact I’ve found myself thinking those criticisms. The economic situation is similar to the late seventies, too: we’re overworked and underpaid, we’re overextended, underrepresented, we have lost our collective voice in the public sphere and are told constantly only to buy our way to happiness (I’m thinking of Bush after 9/​11 here, specifically).

And now we have a Twitter President, and even though I personally am mad as hell, I don’t have any idea what I can do. I personally feel as though Network could be — in fact, should be, get Disney on this, they probably own the rights already in one of their acquisitions — remade for the modern era. The great irony here is that I hope it in some misguided optimistic hope that a new Network will wake people up and make some real change, but of course it won’t. It’s just entertainment! None of it means anything. I think that’s the main goal of TV anyway, right, to make all of life just a game that you can quit at any time just by switching the channel, or in our day, scrolling a little further. If one drug starts to bore you, here’s another.


And of course, here I am having just finished watching a seminal masterwork in twentieth-century film, widely regarded to be one of the best screenplays of the twentieth century, about the dangers of distraction and greed, and the first thing I do as the credits are rolling is pull out my phone and look at the Wikipedia page of the film, and then after writing this yawp of a blog post, I’m opening Reddit to kill some time before going to bed too late to wake up to do it all again.

Now I’m scrolling through Reddit, I’m reminded actually of an example of this TV-ification of life: it’s the 50th anniversary of the moon landing this week. I just saw a video of a projection on the Washington Monument of the Saturn V rocket lifting off, just as it did 50 years ago, to land on the moon. There’s something incredibly sad to me about that: we’re watching video of what many believe to be our greatest achievement instead of going out and doing something — anything — else.

I realize I run the risk of sounding like Howard Beale in this essay. It’s raw, not organized, conspiratorial in its thinking, and it has too many inductive leaps to make any sense, probably even to me in the morning. But I’m truly scared about the future of this country and of humankind. We’ve got a President who’s openly courting fascism, who’s running concentration camps on the border, and a full third of the country is completely behind him on it. We’ve got a planet that is rapidly heating, and though it’ll be fine, really it will in the long run, we and our children and their children and theirs are all going to have terribly difficult lives, for no real reason other than the profits those last few years generated for billionaires. Speaking of billionaires, we’ve got an economy that’s been rapidly funneling money from our pockets to theirs at an alarming rate that’s only getting faster, and I don’t even want to think about what’ll happen when automation really takes off.

In short, we’ve got a lot going against us (and by we I mean normal, every day people, and the normal, every day parts of the rich and the powerful) and very little going for us, or so it seems most of the time. Sure, we’re thrown a bone every now and then, a heartwarming story or a heartwrenching one; we make comments online about how nice or how terrible it is and we make each other very angry in the process; but nothing we do is changing much about the overall structure of power. Capitalism has truly eaten the world, it’s become the One True Organizational Scheme (I don’t have a script in front of me so I can’t quote Altman’s speech) of everything anyone does, and there’s nothing to do about it. Eventually it’ll fall apart, because it’s unstable, but it’ll be by accident and it’s going to be messy as hell.

I don’t know where to end this essay, so I’ll end it here. Network was an incredible piece of fiction, partly because it’s not really so much of a fiction, really. I’m not sure if it’s an American thing to want to tie things up nicely, make them easy to digest, or if it’s just a me thing, but I’m not going to do that with this essay. The film was bleak and its message was bleak and it didn’t really provide any answers. I won’t either.