Saturday, February 28, 2009

"Network"--a Latter Day Appreciation

One of its scenes is iconic.

It's the one where disgraced newscaster Howard Beale exhorts his network audience to stick their heads out the window and shout "I'm mad as hell and I'm not gonna take it anymore!!!"

I streamed the 1976 classic "Network" last night on Netflix (what a cool service--instant movies on your flatscreen!). And I was reminded why I had found the movie so surprising and stimulating when I first saw it at a big old movie palace in Seattle back when it came out: then, as now, it came across as both outraged and literate; tough and grounded; and now even moreso than then, in so many ways prescient about the fate of news and information in our plugged-in society.

More or less, it's about a newscaster at a failing network who, having had a nervous breakdown on the air, is exploited for entertainment value while still doing the news. Eventually he is terminated because people tire of his twisted shenanigans.

Beyond the well-written script (Paddy Chayefsky) and the bravura performances by Peter Finch, William Holden, Faye Dunaway and Robert Duvall (what a cast!), the film remains a standout for its biting satire about the hucksterism driving that most self-serious of professions: television news. When it came out, the scenes it presented came across as wild, even preposterous: glitzy, circus-like newscasts? Who'd have thought they'd ever really dare!

Now we can see it was in the cards all along. Never mind the Fox News calamity--where fantasy and propaganda are presented as fact with Goebbelsesque audacity--even the news liberals watch (Olbermann, Maddow, Stewart, Colbert) is hopped up with entertainment features. How else do you explain Keith's "Worst Persons in the World" (which I much enjoy) or Maddow's "Scrub, Rinse, Repeat" (which I also enjoy); each crafted with enough news to be news, but enough guff to be fun? And Colbert especially has leeched out pretty much all the actual news from the show, replacing it (mercifully) with heavy doses of subversive hijinks. And guess what: we love it!

In "Network" the formula seemed to work: Howard Beale's news-hour-of-madness was a big success for a time. The suggestion wasn't all that fantastical. Just a few years ahead of its time.