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A Populist Classic

4,642 words

Written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Sidney Lumet, Network (1976) is a sardonic, dark-comic satire of America at the very moment that its trajectory of decline became apparent (to perceptive eyes, at least).

Network has an outstanding script and incandescent performances, which were duly recognized. Chayefsky won the Oscar for Best Screenplay. Peter Finch won the Oscar for Best Actor for his portrayal of TV anchorman Howard Beale. Faye Dunaway won Best Actress for playing the reptilian, cynical career girl Diana Christensen. William Holden turns in a warm and credible performance as TV news executive Max Schumacher. Beatrice Straight plays Schumacher’s wife Louise. She won Best Supporting Actress for basically one scene, where she denounces her cheating husband, a measure of the talent this movie lavished on even minor roles. Robert Duvall is a convincingly loathsome corporate creep named Frank Hackett. Marlene Warfield is electrifying and utterly hilarious as my favorite character, Laureen Hobbs, who introduces herself as a “bad-ass commie nigger.”

Remarkably, Network has no film score, and it is not really missed. The script and performances stand on their own. We don’t need violins to tell us what to feel.

Network is a serious movie of ideas. What’s more, these ideas are objectively Right-wing, even though that may not have been the intention of Chayefsky and Lumet.

Network offers a scathing tableau of the cynicism, corruption, and propagandistic agenda of the mainstream media, one of the cultural citadels of the Left. Network offers a particularly dark portrait of a scheming, sociopathic career woman (Faye Dunaway’s Diana Christiansen) who sleeps with a married superior.

Network also portrays the sixties generation, then rising into positions of influence, as cynical and decadent — disdaining the morals and basic decency of their parents’ generation as mere sentiment. Indeed, Network portrays the Marxist-terrorist fringe of the Sixties Left as clownish hysterical thugs who instantly sell out when offered a TV contract.

But Network’s Right-wing themes that resonate the most today center around the conflict between nationalism and populism on the one hand and globalism and elitism on the other.

The plot of Network is fairly simple. Howard Beale (played by Peter Finch) is the evening news anchor at America’s fourth television network, UBS, which stands for Union Broadcasting System, but it sounds like “You BS,” which means something very different. Beale has been declining personally and professionally for some time, and finally, his old friend Max Schumacher (William Holden), the head of the News Division, was forced to fire him. The two got roaring drunk, and when Howard tells Max he plans to kill himself on the air, Max playfully suggests that it would get a hell of a rating. Then he reels off a whole list of equally lurid shows, which at the time seemed like an obscene parody, but seem like old hat to today’s generation, who have easy online access to terrorist and cartel murder videos.

Of course, Max was not serious, and he did not dream that Howard would actually go through with it. But Howard really does go on the air the next day and announce that he will kill himself on live television. The network, of course, cuts the camera. But the stunt garners enormous attention.

Howard begs to go back on the air the next day to say a more dignified goodbye, but when he broadcast goes live, he launches into a tirade about having run out of “bullshit.” (This is “You BS,” after all.) The broadcast is a hit, but both Max and Howard are canned by the UBS brass, who think gutter language is beneath the dignity of their television network. (Those were the days.)

Enter Faye Dunaway’s character Diana Christensen, who is in charge of entertainment programming. She, along with fellow young cynic Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall), persuade UBS to bring back Beale (and Schumacher) for much-needed ratings. (UBS is struggling in fourth rank.) As Diana puts it, “Howard Beale is processed instant God, and right now it looks like he may just go over bigger than Mary Tyler Moore.”

What sends Beale into ratings heaven is his famous “Mad as Hell” tirade, which seems even more poignant in the age of Trump and Brexit and at the brink of a global depression.

I don’t have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. It’s a depression. Everybody’s out of work or scared of losing their job, the dollar buys a nickel’s worth, banks are going bust, shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter, punks are running wild in the streets, and there’s nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do, and there’s no end to it.

We know the air’s unfit to breathe and our food is unfit to eat, and we sit and watch our TVs while some local newscaster tells us today, we had fifteen homicides and sixty-three violent crimes, as if that’s the way it’s supposed to be. We all know things are bad. Worse than bad. They’re crazy. It’s like everything’s going crazy.

So we don’t go out anymore. We sit in the house, and slowly the world we live in gets smaller, and all we ask is please, at least leave us alone in our own living rooms. Let me have my toaster and my TV and my hair-dryer and my steel-belted radials, and I won’t say anything, just leave us alone.

Well, I’m not going to leave you alone. I want you to get mad — I don’t want you to riot. I don’t want you to protest. I don’t want you to write your congressmen. Because I wouldn’t know what to tell you to write. I don’t know what to do about the depression and the inflation and the defense budget and the Russians and crime in the street.

All I know is first you’ve got to get mad. You’ve got to say: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore. I’m a human being, goddammit. My life has value.” So I want you to get up now. I want you to get out of your chairs and go to the window. Right now. I want you to go to the window, open it, and stick your head out and yell. I want you to yell: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” — Get up from your chairs. Go to the window. Open it. Stick your head out and yell and keep yelling . . .

There is a deep political truth here. Before we can have any political change at all, we need to get angry. But to get angry, we need to be assertive. And to be assertive, we require self-esteem. It is an amazingly dramatic sequence. If you don’t find it stirring, check your pulse, because you might be dead.

In her bid to take over Beale’s show, Diana begins an affair with Max Schumacher, who is old enough to be her father and married to boot. Max, however, is disgusted by the desire to exploit Howard Beale, who has obviously gone insane. (Howard shows clear signs of mania.) Eventually, however, Christensen and Hackett team up to fire Schumacher. Then Christensen turns the UBS news program into The Howard Beale Show, a grotesque variety program featuring Howard as “The Mad Prophet of the Airwaves.”

Diana argues that Howard is popular because he is “articulating the popular rage.” She wants a whole new slate of angry, anti-establishment programming. Diana, mind you, doesn’t want to change society to make people less angry. She simply wants to exploit popular discontent and channel it into ratings and money. She wants to make it into a commodity. This is brought home brilliantly in Howard’s first speech on The Howard Beale Show.

Edward George Ruddy died today! Edward George Ruddy was the Chairman of the Board of the Union Broadcasting Systems — and woe is us if it ever falls in the hands of the wrong people. And that’s why woe is us that Edward George Ruddy died. Because this network is now in the hands of CC&A, the Communications Corporation of America.

We’ve got a new Chairman of the Board, a man named Frank Hackett, now sitting in Mr. Ruddy’s office on the twentieth floor. And when the twelfth-largest company in the world controls the most awesome goddamned propaganda force in the whole godless world, who knows what shit will be peddled for truth on this tube?

So, listen to me! Television is not the truth! Television is a goddamned amusement park; that’s what television is! Television is a circus, a carnival, a traveling troupe of acrobats and story-tellers, singers and dancers, jugglers, side-show freaks, lion-tamers, and football players. We’re in the boredom-killing business! If you want truth, go to God, go to your guru, go to yourself because that’s the only place you’ll ever find any real truth!

But, man, you’re never going to get any truth from us. We’ll tell you anything you want to hear. We lie like hell! We’ll tell you Kojak always gets the killer, and nobody ever gets cancer in Archie Bunker’s house. And no matter how much trouble the hero is in, don’t worry: just look at your watch — at the end of the hour, he’s going to win. We’ll tell you any shit you want to hear!

We deal in illusion, man! None of it’s true! But you people sit there — all of you — day after day, night after night, all ages, colors, creeds — we’re all you know. You’re beginning to believe this illusion we’re spinning here. You’re beginning to think the tube is reality and your own lives are unreal. You do whatever the tube tells you. You dress like the tube, you eat like the tube, you raise your children like the tube, you think like the tube.

This is mass madness, you maniacs! In God’s name, you people are the real thing! We’re the illusions! So turn off this goddamn set! Turn it off right now! Turn it off and leave it off. Turn it off right now, right in the middle of this very sentence I’m speaking now —

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Then Howard collapses in a dead faint, the camera dollies forward and looms up over him. Cue music. Cue applause. The audience goes wild. Thus television turns a critique of television into more television. And, arguably, Chayefsky and Lumet are turning their own critique of the media into more media. A critique of the media becomes just another media experience, which might resonate for a bit but is eventually ousted by yet another media experience. Thus the critical impetus never meshes with anything real; it poses no threat to the existing system.

Howard Beale is like the philosopher in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. He has climbed out of the world of shadows and seen the truth of things. But once he returns to the cave, he is not rejected by the cave-dwellers, but instead embraced and turned into one of the dancing shadows that bemuse them.

Howard’s speech centers around an important distinction between friendship and flattery. A friend tells you what you need to hear, namely the truth, whereas a flatterer tells you what you want to hear. Any truth we don’t want to hear is basically bad news. But we need to hear bad news. We need to know about problems if we are to overcome them. Bad news about ourselves is usually about personal failings and inadequacies. Friends force us to confront them, which is a necessary condition of growth. Television, however, is a flatterer, not a friend. It dispenses comforting illusions that, at best, promote complacency, but usually promote corruption.

Another important distinction is edification versus pandering. To edify means to build up: to build up a person’s knowledge, character, tastes, and ultimately his individuality. To pander is to stoop down, to cater to a person’s existing knowledge, character, and tastes, no matter how inadequate and immature.

Human beings are not blank slates, but we are born ignorant, amoral, crude, fearful, and weak. As Thomas Sowell once put it, every new generation is an invasion of barbarians. We have to civilize them, or civilization will perish. The purpose of education and high culture is to edify: to turn barbarians into civilized men.

The culture industry, however, has the diametrically opposite agenda. Its goal is to make money by appealing to people’s “given preferences”: the given preferences of barbarians. No matter how ignorant, tasteless, immoral, or undifferentiated you may be, you will always find people who will cater to your preferences because they want to separate you from your money.

But the culture industry does not just breed complacency. It also encourages corruption. Having a developed personality — including tastes and morals — means that certain things are beneath you. There are things you will not do, things you will not look at or listen to, things you will not buy. Thus, to sell us more things, the culture industry has to break down the inhibitions of morality and taste that forbid certain pleasures. Edification breeds discrimination. The culture industry wants us to be less discriminating, because that means we are willing to consume more. Thus the culture industry has an incentive to dissolve all standards of morals and taste in the acid of cynicism. Civilization can’t compete with barbarism in the “free market,” which means that capitalism will slowly liquidate civilization, unless education and high culture are preserved from market forces.

Howard’s commodified discontent is a hit. It entertains all and threatens none. The big lines kept going up. But then Howard made a speech that actually changed something, something big, something important:

All right, listen to me! Listen carefully! This is your goddamn life I’m talking about today! In this country, when one company takes over another company, they simply buy up a controlling share of the stock. But first, they have to file notice with the government. That’s how CC&A — the Communications Corporation of America — bought up the company that owns this network. And now somebody’s buying up CC&A! Some company named Western World Funding Corporation is buying up CC&A! They filed their notice this morning!

Well, just who the hell is Western World Funding Corporation? It’s a consortium of banks and insurance companies who are not buying CC&A for themselves but as agents for somebody else! Well, who’s this somebody else? They won’t tell you! They won’t tell you, they won’t tell the Senate, they won’t tell the SEC, the FCC, the Justice Department, they won’t tell anybody! They say it’s none of our business! The hell it ain’t!

Well, I’ll tell you who they’re buying CC&A for. They’re buying it for the Saudi-Arabian Investment Corporation! They’re buying it for the Arabs! . . . We know the Arabs control more than sixteen billion dollars in this country! They own a chunk of Fifth Avenue, twenty downtown pieces of Boston, a part of the port of New Orleans, an industrial park in Salt Lake City. They own big hunks of the Atlanta Hilton, the Arizona Land and Cattle Company, the Security National Bank in California, the Bank of the Commonwealth in Detroit! They control ARAMCO, so that puts them into Exxon, Texaco, and Mobil oil! They’re all over — New Jersey, Louisville, St. Louis, Missouri! And that’s only what we know about! There’s a hell of a lot more we don’t know about because all those Arab petro-dollars are washed through Switzerland and Canada and the biggest banks in this country! . . . And there’s not a single law on the books to stop them!

There’s only one thing that can stop them — you! So I want you to get up now. I want you to get out of your chairs and go to the phone. Right now. I want you to go to your phone or get in your car and drive into the Western Union office in town. I want everybody listening to me to get up right now and send a telegram to the White House . . . By midnight tonight I want a million telegrams in the White House! I want them wading knee-deep in telegrams at the White House! Get up! Right now! And send President Ford a telegram saying: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore! I don’t want the banks selling my country to the Arabs! I want this CC&A deal stopped now!”

This is pure red-meat National Populism. From a nationalist point of view, it makes no sense to allow crucial industries to fall into the hands of foreign powers, especially global rivals. For instance, the coronavirus crisis has brought home the folly of outsourcing most of our pharmaceutical and medical supply manufacturing to China. Of course, our global business elites see things differently, which is where populism comes in. It is the American masses who have to rise up, shove aside the elites, and mobilize the government to intervene in the economy in the national interest.

Howard’s speech is a great success. Within hours, the White House was awash in millions of telegrams — six million, to be precise — and the Saudi acquisition of CC&A was halted. It was a glorious outpouring of democracy.

But the head of CC&A, Arthur Jensen (played by Ned Beatty), is not amused. CC&A is deep in debt, and they need the Saudi money badly. So Mr. Jensen calls Howard into this office, with the goal of selling him on globalism rather than nationalism. After ushering him into the CC&A boardroom with the words “Valhalla, Mr. Beale,” Jensen closes the curtains and sets the stage for a Mephistophelean harangue.

You have meddled with the primal forces of nature, Mr. Beale, and I won’t have it, is that clear?! You think you have merely stopped a business deal — that is not the case! The Arabs have taken billions of dollars out of this country, and now they must put it back. It is ebb and flow, tidal gravity, it is ecological balance! You are an old man who thinks in terms of nations and peoples. There are no nations! There are no peoples! There are no Russians. There are no Arabs! There are no Third Worlds! There is no West! There is only one holistic system of systems, one vast and immane, interwoven, interacting, multi-variate, multi-national dominion of dollars! petro-dollars, electro-dollars, multi-dollars!, Reichsmarks, rubles, rin, pounds, and shekels! It is the international system of currency that determines the totality of life on this planet! That is the natural order of things today! That is the atomic, subatomic, and galactic structure of things today! And you have meddled with the primal forces of nature, and you will atone!

Am I getting through to you, Mr. Beale? You get up on your little twenty-one-inch screen, and howl about America and democracy. 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. What do you think the Russians talk about in their councils of state — Karl Marx? They pull out their linear programming charts, statistical decision theories, and minimax solutions and compute the price-cost probabilities of their transactions and investments just like we do.

We no longer live in a world of nations and ideologies, Mr. Beale. The world is a college of corporations, inexorably determined by the immutable by-laws of business. The world is a business, Mr. Beale! It has been since man crawled out of the slime, and our children, Mr. Beale, will live to see that perfect world in which there is no war and famine, oppression and brutality — one vast and ecumenical holding company, for whom all men will work to serve a common profit, in which all men will hold a share of stock, all necessities provided, all anxieties tranquilized, all boredom amused. And I have chosen you, Mr. Beale, to preach this evangel.

Howard is thunderstruck: “I have seen the face of God!” To which Jensen replies, “You just might be right, Mr. Beale.” It is a brilliant scene, but Beatty’s delivery verges on parody.

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Jensen’s speech is a stunning encapsulation of modern political thought and its ultimate telos: what Alexandre Kojève called the “end of history” in a “universal homogeneous state.” Modern political philosophy seeks to build a stable social and political order on the broad, low foundation of something shared by all men, namely desire: desire for the necessities of life, desire for comfort and security, desire for a long, healthy life and a peaceful death in the midst of plenty, rather than a short life, ending in want or violence.

To secure this desire-based social order, competing foundations must be eliminated. Since all men share the same basic desires, the modern state is, in principle, global. Therefore, the existence of distinct nations and the patriotic sentiments that dispose us to prefer our homelands to strange lands must be eliminated. Thus Jensen dismisses nationalism as a regressive folly of old men. The world is also divided by ideologies, like Marxism. Jensen dismisses those as well. If mankind is not divided by ideologies or national identities, we will have peace, so we can get down to the business of abolishing want and satisfying desire — business like the CC&A deal with the Saudis.

However, when Howard goes back on the air to preach Mr. Jensen’s vision of global capitalist utopia, he paints it in depressingly dystopian tones, for he sees that a world devoted solely to creature comforts and lacking identity, patriotism, and principles is a world without passion, nobility, and soul-expanding sentiments. It is also a world of self-indulgence, not self-edification. Thus it’s also a world without the tastes, standards, and strength of character necessary to resist the crowd. Thus it is also a world without individuality. Hence: “It’s the individual that’s finished. It’s the single, solitary human being who’s finished. It’s every single one of you out there who’s finished. Because this is no longer a nation of independent individuals. This is a nation of two hundred odd million transistorized, deodorized, whiter-than-white, steel-belted bodies, totally unnecessary as human beings and as replaceable as piston rods.”

The End of History ushers in the age of the Last Man.

This perversely bleak utopia resembles Kojève’s description of the universal homogeneous post-historical state as a realm of dehumanization, for desires don’t set us apart from the animals, thus a society in which desire is sovereign and reason and sentiments are subordinate puts the distinctly human in service of the subhuman. It is a society of clever animals, not men. Such a depiction of utopia can only lead to its rejection, which was Kojève’s intent, as I argue in my lecture “Alexandre Kojève and the End of History [3].”

Howard’s depressive utopianism could only provoke revulsion. People started changing the channel, and The Howard Beale Show went into steep decline. Mr. Jensen, however, was adamant that Howard remain on the air and on message, regardless of the consequences. Thus Christensen, Hackett, and others at the network hatch a plot to have Beale assassinated, on air.

At this point, we get the payoff for the movie’s funniest subplot: Christensen’s plan to create a one-hour weekly dramatic series called The Mao Tse-Tung Hour, based on the real-life activities of a terrorist group called the Ecumenical Liberation Army (obviously patterned on the Symbionese Liberation Army). Christiansen gives the Communist Party complete control of the ideological content of the show. They can stick any Marxist propaganda they want on television as long as the show makes money, which pretty much sums up network television today.

Christiansen’s contact with the guerrillas is Laureen Hobbs (who is supposed to remind us of Angela Davis). Hobbs’ transformation from pedantically rattling off Marxist duck-speak to hysterically ranting about contracts is absolutely priceless. Actress Marlene Warfield somehow manages to make dialogue like this hilarious:

Don’t fuck with my distribution costs! I’m getting a lousy two-fifteen per segment, and I’m already deficiting twenty-five grand a week with Metro. I’m paying William Morris ten percent off the top! . . . I’m paying Metro twenty percent of all foreign and Canadian distribution, and that’s after recoupment! The Communist Party’s not going to see a nickel out of this goddam show until we go into syndication!

The name Hobbs is supposed to call to mind Thomas Hobbes, the theorist of dog-eat-dog capitalism, though nobody, in truth, outdoes Marxists in cannibalism. Since Beale’s show is in the slot before The Mao Tse-Tung Hour and dragging down its ratings, Hobbs agrees to have the Ecumenicals assassinate Howard Beale. It’ll be a great two-hour opener for the new season!

The scene in which the network executives decide to murder Howard Beale is quite chilling. Every one of them is a sociopath. Moral considerations never creep in at all.

When the Ecumenicals kill Howard on live television, again the camera dollies forward and looms up over the kill, transmuting it into an image. Then we cut to four television screens, one tuned to each of the four networks. We simultaneously see and hear the coverage of the shooting as well as various commercials. Then the narrator proclaims over the cacophony: “This was the story of Howard Beale, the first known instance of a man who was killed because he had lousy ratings.” As far as I know, television networks still do not resort to assassinations, but Network was dead right about the plunge of network television into gutter depravity and crude Left-wing agitprop.

Network offers a feast of truth on the media, popular culture, capitalism, feminism, Leftism, nationalism, populism, globalization, and decadence. Network is absolutely right that we need to worry about who controls the mass media, especially hostile aliens. But when Network raises the alarm about foreign influence on the American media, it names the wrong tribe of Semites.

Indeed, although the American television and movie industries are famously Jewish, Network portrays UBS as almost entirely non-Jewish. In the context of a TV network, a name like Max Schumacher sounds Jewish, but William Holden was not Jewish and neither is his portrayal of Schumacher. Of course, if Schumacher is supposed to be Jewish, we also have to note that he is the most decent character in the bunch. A minor character — little more than an extra — is named Barbara Schlesinger, a likely Jewish name, but she is played by Conchata Ferrell, who is not Jewish. Jews, however, are not confined to minor roles in the American media.

Everybody else at UBS is conspicuously white. Howard Beale is an English name, and Peter Finch, who played him, was of Anglo-Scottish ancestry. The main villains are named Christensen and Jensen, both Scandinavian names, and Hackett, an English name with Scandinavian roots. (Another corporate sociopath is named Amundsen in the script.) This is such a neat inversion of the truth that it cannot be accidental.

Indeed, the main reason there are so few Jews in front of the cameras in Network is that the main people behind the camera, writer Paddy Chayefsky and director Sidney Lumet, were both Jewish. One has to give them credit for all the truths that they did put on screen, but it was clearly dishonest of them to omit their own ethnic group’s presiding role in the corruption and degeneracy of American television.

There’s a lesson in that, too.

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