The medium is the message

Screenshot from the film
Screenshot from the film

‘Network’ movie review

By Adam Tatelman, Staff Writer

Sidney Lumet’s Network is a rare sort of film with the courage to bite the hand that feeds it. It seems the highest hypocrisy to make a film so critical about the very medium that permits its existence. How could it otherwise spread its message to so many people, if not with the incredible reach of broadcast? This is the paradox at the heart of Network. It doesn’t matter if we know every detail of the corporate interest behind the TV screen. The fact is we will keep watching all the same.

The film concerns the newscasters of a low-end TV network called UBS. The Board decides that its news program must be accountable to the network and report the news in whatever biased way the network wishes. The program is downsized, leaving newscaster Howard Beale (Peter Finch) jobless. Depressed, he announces on the air that he will broadcast his own suicide. UBS suddenly receives more public attention than ever before.

Production lead Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) sees the potential for viewership in Howard’s mental breakdown. Against great pushback, she casts him in his own news show, shamelessly exploiting his rants against UBS for the network’s own gain. The show is an unprecedented success, partly because it is nothing but entertainment disguised as news. Her genius attracts the attention of division president Max Schumacher (William Holden), and the two end up in a May-December romance that puts Max’s family life in jeopardy.

Network deals with the way television shapes culture. As Max himself notes, a generation now exists that has never lived in the time before television. An implicit trust was created between the viewers and the broadcasters that what the viewers are being shown is actually the truth. But viewers do not know the interests behind what they are shown and begin to merge propaganda with reality.

Despite the existential monologues and endless technical jargon, the film retains a personal, conversational connection between the characters. Their drama is the driving force behind the developments at UBS network, particularly where Max’s marital infidelities are concerned.

The film’s shooting and lighting starts out similarly to typical Hollywood drama, then slowly grows to resemble the visual styles used by television advertisements. This happens gradually, accenting the creeping corruption that claims every character in the film save for Max’s spurned wife. The transformation is so subtle that it’s hard to say where any major change occurred. Before you know it, you’re tuning in to listen to Howard Beale, the Mad Prophet of the Airwaves.

In one of the most impassioned speeches in the film, Howard incites audiences across the nation to get up from their chairs, go to their windows, stick out their heads, and yell: “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” And they do, from Atlanta to Baton Rouge to New York City. It’s a beautiful moment of solidarity and clarity of purpose, but it also shows us the powerful hold television has on our lives. We know that, once their little revolution ended, everybody went back to wait for the TV to tell them what to do next.