I rented the infamous 'Network' last night, a stunningly intelligent and prescient movie about the dangers of the corporate media. Written by Paddy Chayefsky, the 1976 film follows the mental breakdown of UBS News Anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch), a man at the end of his career because his ratings have been in terminal decline and his corporate bosses no longer see any use for him.
That is untill he threatens to kill himself on air and begins to speak truth to power. Beale tells the world that television is a farce, a fake world created by rich white people to serve rich white people's interests. Don't watch me, he tells them. Turn off the TV and look within yourself for human truths, not to the commercially crafted images designed to sell you cereal products.
Beale's shenanigans create an over night ratings success that sees him become the darling of the corporation and his career relaunched.
The film is packed with rich and complex characters, prototypes for the new generation of the conglomorate owned media that are shockingly accurate when compared with the brutalist reality we see today. We see Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) as the beautiful but ruthless entertainment producer willing to commercialize anything (including the antics of a fringe communist terrorist party) to drive ratings, Frank Hackett (Robert Duval) as the faceless corporate man who cares for nothing but market share and profit, and News President Max Schumacher (William Holden), Beale's best friend and last bastion of humanity at UBS.
The film pits two generations against each other, the old still clinging to the notion of decency and seriousness, and the new interested only in ratings and money. Beale is stuck in the middle, exploited by the money men, but simultaneously exploiting them and exposing their lies. But as the dark forces of global capitalism weigh down on Beale and the network, a more insidious relationship emerges that marks the beginning of a new era of faceless greed, power and irrationality.
The character that Beale morphs into is the ultimate expression of global capitalism - a cartoon character masked as a man of the people, a manipulated, deeply disturbed person engulfed in a new world he acutely understands, but intensely fears. Fighting the system becomes too much for Howard Beale, so he ultimately becomes a part of it.
The film, made 34 years ago, was a warning to the media industry that was beginning to go off the rails. Chayefsky understood the trajectory it was taking and painted an apocalyptic landscape to make his point.
And unfortunately, Chayefsky was right. Network' is so unnervingly accurate that one shudders to think of what lies ahead.
We already have our Howard Beale - a real, breathing version of the legendary character who can be seen nightly on the Fox News network. Except Glenn Beck never started out speaking truth to power. He worked for it from the beginning, a tragic reminder that today, the devastated character Beale becomes are available prepackaged for networks looking for new stars.
One would hope that Beck represents the last hurrah of a sick economic system teetering on the edge of existence - a final expression of the insanity of unregulated markets, giant conglomerates and the relentless pursuit of ratings and profit.
But it might just be the beginning.
Chayefsky's film is ultimately hopeful though, because as Beale begins to work for the money men, his audience switches off - a sign that people intrinsically know what is authentic and what isn't.
Turn off your TV, because it isn't real.
Ben Cohen is the Editor of TheDailyBanter.com