Sunday, February 26, 2006


Network was released 30 years ago. It aired last last night on Turner Classics. I'm watching it now, and a new two-disc DVD goes on sale this Tuesday.

This is not just one of the greatest movies every made. It is a subversive prophecy that, 30 years after its premiere, is more stinging than Syriana.

Howard Beale is a Walter Cronkite-type anchor who came of age working with Edward R. Murrow. Under corporate pressure for higher ratings, he is abruptly fired, and announces that night his intention to commit suicide in his final broadcast. From this, ratings skyrocket. As a mental breakdown begins, Beale believes that he is receiving instructions from God. The ratings grow apace with Beale's descent. The news is turned into entertainment. The network begins to follow its newscast with violent reality programming, including the Mao Tse-tung Hour, which chronicles the exploits of a Communist terrorist organization.

I watched Network in early 2001, and pressed it on friends and co-workers as a prophecy about reality TV. Since then I've watched it a couple times a year. It's a different movie every time, and in the age of multinationals, prime time chaos and neoconservatives, it always has a different relevance.

Take, for example, the jeremiad that turns out to be Beale's undoing: a broadcast attack on Arab ownership of media companies. His speech rallies the public and leads to the withdrawal of billions in Arab investments to the U.S. This draws the ire of his corporate masters, who like Beale's high ratings, but need the Arab money more.

Does Good Night and Good Luck or Brokeback Mountain touch on anything as sweeping as the following warning from a corporate heavy played by Ned Beatty?
You have meddled with the primal forces of nature, Mr. Beale, and I won't have it. Is that clear? You think you've merely stopped a business deal? That is not the case. The Arabs have taken billions of dollars out of this country, and now they must put it back. It is ebb and flow, tidal gravity. It is ecological balance. You are an old man who thinks in terms of nations and peoples. There are no nations; there are no peoples. There are no Russians. There are no Arabs. There are no third worlds. There is no West. There is only one holistic system of systems; one vast, interwoven, interacting, multivaried, multinational dominion of dollars.
The movie is also entertaining. It doesn't overplay its hand, it's funny, perfectly acted, and while foreshadowing three decades' worth of mayhem, it works just as well as a character study of corporate titans and disillusioned news executives.

Movies don't get better.

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