Network

Cintra Wilson writes about her favorite movie for Salon's Personal Best issue.


Cintra Wilson
March 22, 1997 1:00AM (UTC)

"you have meddled with the primal forces of NATURE, Mr. Beale ... There is no America. There is no Democracy. There is only IBM and ITT and AT&T and DuPont, Dow, Union Carbide and Exxon. Those are the nations of the world today ... the world is a BUSINESS, Mr. Beale."

These are the words emitted by the looming, Godlike head of Ned Beatty as he terrifies cowering Angry Prophet Peter Finch in one of the greatest confrontations ever captured on celluloid.

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Great authors who write about the future invariably stumble onto prophecy. Paddy Chayefsky, in "Network," the greatest screenplay ever to remain undestroyed by Hollywood and make it intact to the screen, hits the Orwellian mother lode.

"Network" rolls over the commercial bulwarks of television-as-propaganda-machine like a squadron of speed-freak-driven Panzers. I doubt that such a movie could ever be made today: America the Corporation is now too comfortable with its evils, far too powerful and omnipotent not to slap down and bury with its tentacles any attempt at a "Network II." It's hard to argue, looking at What a Terrible Mess the News Has Become, that Chayefsky's luminous prophecy has come to pass. During the Reagan '80s, the editorial integrity of broadcast news was somehow "deregulated" out of existence: The bottom latch on the trough was released, leading to a free-fall in which baseborn mud-slinging and celebrity dog-catching has finally replaced Hard (Holy-Ghost-of-Edward-R.-Murrow) News.

"Historically, news divisions are expected to lose money. But to our minds, this philosophy is a wanton fiscal affront to be resolutely resisted," sayeth Robert Duvall as the spokesman of CAA, the company that owns the Network in the film. He could be voicing the infotainment tenets that govern every television network in the country today (even PBS can't brag that it isn't enslaved by the corporate agenda, now that Archer Daniels Midland owns the "The News Hour.") Big Brother has landed, and he wears the face of Ronald McDonald standing in front of a taut, vinyl American flag.

Faye Dunaway's step-on-your-face ambitious corporate go-getter, Diana Christenson, suggests to her development team that their fall lineup include suicides, Mafia executions and terrorist bombings. "The American people are turning sullen. They've been clobbered on all sides by Vietnam, Watergate, inflation, depression, they've turned off, shot up and fucked themselves limp and nothing helps ... the American people WANT someone to articulate their rage for them." This was outrageous in the '70s. Today, with "Cops" and "Real Life Home Videos of Bloody Disasters" on every channel, it isn't even ironic.

Exploitation and tabloid sensationalism is nothing new -- it's the level of it that's alarming. In the last few years, copycat murderers imitating "Natural Born Killers," monsters inspired by movies who set New York token booth clerks on fire, and countless other atrocious examples of "life imitating art" have become so banal and commonplace that they barely register a blip on the screen of America's consciousness anymore. At the end of "Network," Finch's mentally unstable, arm-waving anchorman prophet -- who throughout the entire film has been led by his nose like an abused, gypsy-camp bear -- starts to preach the corporate cosmology of the conglomerate that owns the Network. In his deranged fashion, he realizes that this is the ultimate truth. This is too depressing for the American public, and they stop watching the show. Ultimately, the prophet is vanquished by those who wish to up the show's ratings.

Only the Unabomber has delivered a similar message since Chayefsky's masterpiece, and look what happened to him.

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Cintra Wilson

Cintra Wilson is a culture critic and author whose books include "A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Re-Examined as a Grotesque, Crippling Disease" and "Caligula for President: Better American Living Through Tyranny." Her new book, "Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling America's Fashion Destiny," will be published by WW Norton.

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