Sometimes all you can do is point at the absurdity of the world and laugh. You might rage against it for a while before tiring yourself out as you get nothing but a wall of indifference in response. You might complain about it for a while before realizing that your life has become nothing but an incessant session of whining. You might want to yell and scream until your voice goes hoarse, and you realize that no one is listening. You might sit down and watch Network and laugh and laugh and laugh. And not a chuckle here or there either. It’ll be a deep, dark laugh from a soul that realizes that the only plausible response to the world around us is to have a mean-spirited giggle now and then at its expense.
Network, the 1976 film directed by Sidney Lumet, is the blackest of black comedies. It follows a struggling media company as it exploits Howard Beale [Peter Finch], an unhinged television news anchor and self-styled prophet, to improve its ratings. The film, a compelling story in itself, serves as a pointed and multifaceted critique of modern life. It makes us laugh at the whole farcical world: the pernicious effects of television; the moral depravity of corporate managers; the corrupting influence of money and fame; the public’s desire to embrace the angry cause du jour. No one is spared. Nothing is sacred.
When I first saw Network, I was in a terrible place. I’d been working at a marketing consultancy helping large corporations figure out how to sell more stuff to consumers. Two years earlier, I’d graduated from college, imbued with the belief that I could work at a high-powered corporate job and help people at the same time. Two years later I was disillusioned, unable to see the work as anything but a scheme to extract more money from consumers by any means. I was quaking with anger at my pointlessness existence of endless nights and weekends fiddling with spreadsheets which mysteriously transmuted data into money. I was broken, both physically and psychologically. I silently cursed my employers, coworkers, and clients. I silently cursed myself for going along with all of it. Then along came Network.
In one of the final scenes of the movie, Diana [Faye Dunaway], the ambitious young head of network programming, and Frank [Robert Duvall], her boss, sit in an office and choose to assassinate Howard Beale to keep their ratings from sliding too far. This is the capstone of an entire film worth of grievous corporate decision making. Before I’d started this job, I would have found this scene preposterous. I would have assumed that this kind of psychopathic behavior was far outside the norm. Watching this scene after two years of peering into the shriveled hearts of large corporations, though, I found it entirely convincing. I certainly wasn’t party to any assassinations, but the thought processes that led to that assassination? Those suddenly seemed entirely plausible. Those felt like part of a family of behaviors that I’d been surrounded by every day at work. Those seemed akin to business decisions that I’d been party to. In Network, I found a mirror of my professional life.
Watching Diana and Frank work led me to an epiphany: it’s easy to condemn the deplorable behavior of corporate decision makers, but only the very bravest [or perhaps stubborn] of us can truly stand up for what’s right within a morally bankrupt corporate bureaucracy. The whole system is one where employees are encouraged to place attaining goals for the organization above personal considerations of right and wrong. The organization tries its hardest to drain the life out of its employees, making them as predictable and reliable as machines. At the same time, it tries to break down customers into a vector of numbers, to better predict and influence their future behavior. When these organizations, as a whole, lose touch with human decency, we end up with organizations employing tens of thousands of people pursuing organizational goals that contravene our individual sense of right and wrong. Look at Enron or Wells Fargo or Tobacco companies. Look at Network.
Network, forty years ago, was keenly concerned with this dehumanization that large bureaucracies manufacture. For example, Howard Beale, in one of his sermons to his television audiences says,
“[The U.S. is] a nation of some 200 odd million transistorized, deodorized, whiter than white steel belted bodies totally unnecessary as human beings and as replaceable as piston rods... The whole world is becoming humanoids: creatures that look human but aren’t”
In another scene, Max Schumacher [William Holden], an old hand at UBS and Diana’s lover, tells her he’s leaving her because,
“There’s nothing left in you that I can live with. You’re one of Howard’s humanoids.”
But we don’t just need to listen to the characters to see this dehumanization played out. Take, for example, an early scene where Howard, on his live newscast, announces to the world that he’s been fired and he’s going to kill himself on air in a week. The office explodes into a hive of activity as the television network’s entire staff goes into damage control mode. And yet not a single person tries to help Howard, who is left in the corner to listen to everyone else argue about what they should do about the problem he’s caused. Not a single person shows him the slightest bit of compassion. Even worse, the network executives, seeing this obviously mentally ill man, decide to keep him on the air when they realize that his spontaneous outbursts drive viewership.
Network swooped in at a crucial in my life and crystalized a feeling that had been growing within me. In this world, I have two choices: I can leave the whole system behind, move out to rural Hawaii, and grow miniature goats, or I can stay within the system and laugh at how ridiculous it is only because it’s unseemly to cry in public. The jury’s still out on which one I’ll choose, but at the moment, I’m running out the clock. Instead of choosing anything, I sit on my couch and live out my humanoid existence watching Network and laughing like a maniac.
Here's what you'll see this week:
- Deep analysis of the famous "I'm mad as hell!" scene
- Re-thinking the amazing 49th Academy Awards
- Related Review of recent newsroom drama, Christine
- Our regular streaming recommendations
- And more!