Essay: 1976 Movie Network

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Network

Directed by Sidney Lumet and written by Paddy Chayefsky, 1976's Network provided one of the most cutting satires of television and American media culture to be produced in the twentieth-century, and its themes continue to resonate to this day. However, the film's incisive consideration of network television can frequently obscure one of the most interesting elements in the film; namely, the conflict between two generations of businesspeople, with the older, moralistic generation, embodied by Max Schumacher and Howard Beale, finding itself increasingly incapable of controlling or even holding its own against the younger generation, embodied by Diana Christensen and Frank Hackett. This inter-generational conflict seems to stem from the same media culture critiqued by the film as a whole, and examining it in some detail reveals how the conflict truly is generational. Max and Howard are the fathers of this amoral, hyper-competitive media environment, and it responds by attempting to kill its parents; in the case of Howard this murder is successful, and Max only escapes, somewhat paradoxically, by "leaving" his media family in order to return to the wife that he abandoned earlier.

Before examining Network in greater detail, it will be necessary to provide some background information on the director and stars of the film, because this will help to tease out the theme of inter-generational conflict that defines the story. The director, Sidney Lumet, began his film career by adapting plays for the silver screen, such as 12 Angry Men, and had been doing so for nearly two decades before making Network. The decision to take on a film dealing with the rise of the television medium well into his career reveals how fully the medium overtook American culture, and highlights how the television industry of the 1970s was in a state of generational flux, as the businesspeople and newsmen who had sired it in its earliest stages found themselves facing a creation much more expansive than they could have possibly imagined.

The casting of the film further reveals the centrality of inter-generational conflict to Network. One of the central protagonists, Max Schumacher, is played by William Holden, who by the 1970s was well into a career as a well-known actor. He starred in the film adaptation of Our Town as well as the Bridge on the River Kwai, and over the course of three decades developed a habit of playing a certain type of powerful, detached man. His role in Network as the aging newsman is essentially a commentary on his film career as a whole, because just as Max is being replaced by younger executives and producers, so too is the kind of confidence and control he made famous in the 1950s being replaced with the sense of impotence and displacement felt by a generation who saw television development from an amusement to the most important site of cultural production and manipulation in America. Holden, coming from the generation that fought World War II, represents a kind of masculinity that had gradually died out over the course of the latter half of the twentieth century, and thus his presence in the film highlights the generational shift that is the core of the film. Peter Finch's presence in the film further demonstrates the centrality of the generational shift from the World War II generation to the generation replacing it in the 1970s, because like William Holden, Finch had served in World War II, and like Holden, had been a well-established star prior to filming Network. Finch's role as a representative of the dying generation is only heightened by the fact that he died prior to receiving an Academy Award for his work in the film, becoming the first person to ever with a posthumous award.

In contrast to Holden and Finch, Faye Dunaway and Robert Duvall were rising stars before they were cast in Network. Prior to Network, Duvall was most likely known for his role in the Godfather and the Godfather Part II, while Dunaway's rise to fame came as a result of films like Bonny and Clyde and Chinatown. Dunaway and Duvall represent a generation of actors that came to prominence over the course of the 1960s and 70s, a generation that was quickly replacing those actors whose careers spanned the inter-war years and afterward into the 1950s. Just as Duvall and Dunaway's characters are gunning to replace Holden and Finch, so too were their real-life careers indicative of a similar inter-generational shift occurring in the world of acting.

Though the long-term reputation of Network is that the film represents a major achievement, at the time of its release reviews were mixed (Trier 232). Criticisms of the film generally tended to focus on its satire, with one reviewer paradoxically saying that "Network can be faulted both for going too far and not far enough" (Canby 39). Another review chided the film for treating the American television audience as "sheep," who "flock docilely into the studio," arguing that this satirical approach to media consumption was not accurate or "true" (Eder 53). While it is beyond the scope of this study to support or refute these criticisms, it is worth noting that regardless of the critical reception, the film went on to become a commercial success, garnering four Academy Awards in the process (Trier 232).

The focus on Network's satire in both contemporary reviews and subsequent examinations of the film has meant that the film's focus on inter-generational conflict has been left largely unexamined. This is likely because in many respects, the film seems to be entirely about television itself; as the reviews discussed above indicate, much of the film's narrative and audience reception is focused on the portrayal of television and the television audience. However, this is something of a misdirection, because it misses a crucial fact about the film, namely, the fact that television is merely the vehicle in which a much larger generational shift is expressed. This fact is clearest when Max tells Diana that she is "television incarnate," meaning that she, as what amounts to a child of television, is the product of Max's generation as much as the television landscape he now abhors. By focusing on how Network's disgust with television and the television audience is portrayed, rather than the motivation behind it, previous considerations of the film have overlooked the fact that this disgust is the result of a parent abhorring his own creation. Recognizing this is crucial for understanding what the film is saying about the generational shift which occurred over the course of the 1960s and 70s.

The generational shift that represents the core of Network's conflict ultimately concerns itself with differing visions of morality and the legitimacy of power and authority. Max and Howard represent a view of morality and the legitimacy of power and authority that stems from the perceived moral superiority of America's position during World War II. The war imbued the men who fought it with a sense of an almost divine right, and thus America in the 1950s and early 1960s can be largely viewed as the ascendance of a kind of moralizing masculinity, wherein there are clear delineations between right and wrong and thus power is legitimized through moral superiority. Diana and Frank represent a nearly oppositional ideology, one based on popularity and money, rather than perceived moral superiority, but which is nevertheless the direct descendent of Max and Howard's moralizing masculinity.

The story of Network, then, is the story of how two men react differently to the ascendance of a new moral order and power structure. In both cases, the perceived moral superiority of the older generation is revealed to be nothing more than an illusion, but neither Max nor Howard actually recognize this. Max is persuaded to leave his wife for Diana, demonstrating that whatever moral superiority he imagined he had was easily "corrupted" by the younger, amorality of Diana. In the case of Howard, the corruption is more explicit, and it is expressed visually as well as narratively.

The corruption of Howard's sense of moral superiority is first hinted at in the film when he leaves the regular news and gets his own show in the entertainment division. The set of the Howard Beale Show is a kind of stylized mock-church, and he stands in front of a fake stained-glass window delivering his ranting monologues. While Howard believes himself to actually be a kind of prophet, the studio executives recognize that he is merely fulfilling a character type, and that the religious dressings of the show are meanly a means to increase their audience by playing off of already well-established visual cues. That the religious trappings of the Howard Beale Show are merely a form of media control and persuasion, rather than the indication of any actual moral authority, is further revealed when Howard is confronted by the chairman of the network's owners.

Howard's rants are allowed to continue unedited and largely uncontrolled right up until the moment that his ranting begins to affect the bottom line. When… [END OF PREVIEW]

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1976 Movie Network.  (2012, June 11).  Retrieved March 26, 2019, from https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/1976-movie-network/23780

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"1976 Movie Network."  Essaytown.com.  June 11, 2012.  Accessed March 26, 2019.
https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/1976-movie-network/23780.