By Joseph Ha
I’m hesitant to reference popular films as allegories for modern issues. While these movies’ stories are important and reveal a lot about human nature, viewers overcite them to the point where they become overrated. In addition, other, lesser known films could probably portray these issues in a more thoughtful manner. The problem is, I haven’t seen enough films to discover these hidden gems. Despite this, I feel that “Network” (1976) contains enough complexities that match modern concerns about media corruption and manipulation to make it a great allegory — until I find a better example.
The plot for “Network” follows an ensemble cast, but three central characters mostly drive the plot forward: preachy news anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch), ambitious department head Diane Christensen (Faye Dunaway), and morally cautious news division president Max Schumacher (William Holden). The movie begins as Howard Beale is told of his upcoming job termination due to his show’s low ratings. The next night on the show, Howard threatens to shoot himself, which causes his superiors to fire him immediately. However, Howard gets back on air the following night, thanks to Max’s intervention, and apologizes for his previous rant. After his apology, though, Howard launches into another angry tirade about life’s unfairness, which boosts ratings and catches the attention of his superiors. One of these superiors, Diane, decides to exploit Howard’s rants by turning them into a TV program of their own.
As the film continues, Diane and the other executives devise increasingly questionable tactics to boost ratings — for instance, they hire a band of terrorists to produce a docudrama series called “The Mao Tse-Hung Hour.” Ratings continue to soar until Howard lands the network into some complications when he reveals some of their shady business dealings on air. Eventually, it’s revealed that the TV executives are willing to do anything for ratings, as they devise a way to get rid of Howard forever.
“Network” functions as a great satire because it delves deep into the logic of populist media, whether it be television or more current widespread technology like social media. In “Network,” it doesn’t matter what is shown on television as long as it sells.
In the beginning of the movie, the network executives deemed Howard’s suicide announcement inappropriate, yet, near the end, they’re willing to show his corpse. The troubling aspect about this logic is that truth is thrown out the window, which is problematic since the media is largely presumed to tell the truth.
Another disturbing issue “Network” brings up is how resistance can be artificially manufactured by the media. While Howard’s rantings may emotionally inspire many, his actions are being controlled by forces behind the screen. This paradox raises the question if media can truly inspire resistance against institutions. Sure, media is, on the surface, more democratized today, with anyone from a CEO to an average Joe having the means to speak their opinions through a Facebook post or a Tweet. Even media like film — or at least its cinematic cousin, the video — can be created and broadcast by anyone. However, there is still a bureaucracy behind these supposed democratic media. After all, behind every television is a network that creates the shows you see on your screen.