I went to see Spiderman 3 this week and — for the life of me — could not see a quarter of a billion dollars on the screen. Sure, some of the computer-generated effects, especially the first appearance of Sandman, are astonishing — even moving — but the movie, by many accounts the most expensive in film history, is a strangled mess. I needed to wash my eyes out with something really good after seeing it, so stopped off at Virgin Video on the way home and picked up the DVD of something I haven’t seen since I was a kid.
Just about this time 30 years ago, Network, Sidney Lumet’s masterful production of Paddy Chayefsky’s script was on its way to clean up at the Oscars and deservedly. Arriving like a thunderclap, Chayefsky’s blistering satire excoriated the rise of television “infotainment” and the accompanying descent of standards in a medium he had helped pioneer. Briefly, it’s the story of a news anchor named Howard Beale who, after a long and respected career, finds himself being cut because of low ratings. But instead of passing from the scene quietly, Beale looks into the camera lens during his broadcast and announces to his dwindling audience that because his job was his sole reason to live he will blow his brains out on national television one week hence — an event guaranteed to generate huge ratings (“At least a 50 share”). The rest, as they say, is movie history.
Howard Beale (Peter Finch), mad prophet of the airwaves, who got everything right.
The dramatic turn in Howard Beale’s fate — and Chayefsky’s brilliant conceit — turns an act of madness into a lens that penetrates the insanity of our media culture. Instead of being locked out of the building and led off to a hospital, Beale is instead elevated to renewed prominence by the amoral programming executives who are ascending the corporate hierarchy — to the dismay of the established newsmen. Beale’s jeremiads denouncing the commodification of truth are themselves commodified by programmers who simply seek to amass audience.
I can’t do justice in a brief blog post to the subtle texture of the script and the performances but I can remark on something I missed completely as a kid seeing the movie. William Holden’s character, Max Schumacher, is a veteran news director on his way down. He’s being pulled down by a manic entertainment programming chief played (almost too well) by Faye Dunaway, a woman for whom the Nielsen overnights are scripture. She sees an opportunity to wrest control of the flagging news division and turn it into a spectacle of raving prophets, soothsayers, gossip mongers and — most prophetic and biting — Vox Populi segments (social media, anyone..?). Inexplicably (to me as a kid), Max falls in love with her. She craves his authority and stature. But what he craves is much more complicated. The affair is disastrous, of course, (at its best, she has orgasms with him while ecstatically prattling about her new show The Mao Tse-Tung Hour; at its worst, she discards him as a spent husk) but it fulfills its purpose. What I see now is that he wants to be tested — to get as close as he can to the white hot flame of mad ambition and greed that is consuming the world that he knew in order to know it fully and to see what remains of him after the fire. He comes through the trial annealed and solid, more solid than he was when the story begins. And with some measure of dignity intact.
Max Schumacher stands in for the way of life that Chayefsky grew up in and that, he seems to be saying, can only collect some laurels as it passes from the scene — but cannot win the fight because, after all, the news business is a business. Which brings us to the corporate cosmology of Arthur Jensen.
Howard Beale’s messianic railing against television itself goes swimmingly while it continues to pull in the viewers, but then he starts criticizing the backroom deals of the corporate parent and that is his undoing. In perhaps the most astonishing 5 minutes of the movie, Ned Beatty, playing the company CEO (“The Face of God”) unleashes nothing less than corporate wrath on a chastened Beale, enlightening him on the way the world really works and the mortal nature of his sin in tampering with the “forces of nature.” Beale’s antique notions of nations and peoples and democracy and integrity are defunct, saith Jensen — there is only one vast global economy, in which corporations are the new nation-states. He outlines a vision of perfect market harmony and anoints Beale as the man who will bring the Good News to his flock.
Beale, having seen the face of the new god, dutifully tries to fulfill his mission, but finds that there is a force at play even stronger than god.
It is an amazing movie.
And it cost less than $4 million to make.