Review of Network, Directed by Sidney Lumet
Reviewed by PAUL D. MILLER
Before Glen Beck and Rush Limbaugh, before Keith Olbermann and Chris Mathews; there was Howard Beale. With astonishing prescience, Network (1976)—the story of an angry-man newscaster—prefigured almost all the tropes about media celebrities four years before CNN, twelve years before Limbaugh, twenty years before Fox News, and thirty years before Twitter.
Howard Beale is a normal, boring newscaster who is fired for poor ratings. During one of his final broadcasts he casually mentions his intention to shoot himself on live TV, since he has nothing left to live for. The management goes crazy but the audience loves it. Beale goes on again; this time he lets loose with an angry rant—and the ratings spike again. “People want to watch someone articulate their grievances for them,” one executive understands. Beale is given his own show, rewarded for spewing bile. He gives them what they want, bellowing into the camera one of cinema’s most famous monologues, culminating in the 19th greatest movie quote of all time:
All I know is that first you’ve got to get mad. You’ve got to say, ‘I’m a human being, [expletive deleted] My life has value!’ So I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window. Open it, and stick your head out, and yell, ‘I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!‘
With wicked irony, Beale and his Network use and manipulate each other. Beale rants against the corruption of corporations, television, and marketing—broadcast, of course, by a large corporate television station funded by advertising. He is so popular that he earns massive profits for the studio—prophet for profit. Thus much would make an entire movie today—but this is just the first act. There is an entirely separate sub-plot involving the Network encouraging a terrorist organization to undertake attacks so long as they film themselves and get good footage for the network—leading to a brilliantly wicked scene in which an executive, a Marxist intellectual, and a terrorist negotiate the terms of their profit sharing. Network takes off and fully develops its premises to their full, tragic-comic ending.
This movie is extremely funny in an understated, dead-pan way. If you find this sort of dialogue funny, then this movie is for you:
Executive: “Would you like to be an angry prophet denouncing the hypocrisies of the age?”
Beale: “Why, yes, I think I would like to be an angry prophet denouncing the hypocrisies of the age.”
There is also much to mine here if you want to think about the fundamentally deceitful and manipulative nature of the media, or its role in fostering the cult of celebrity and the celebration of violence.
But, perhaps because of the mood I’ve been in lately, the movie made me wonder: what is the role of anger in public? Paul warns Christians “In your anger do not sin,” in Ephesians 4:26, clearly showing that anger is not, by itself, sinful. But Jesus also warns “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment…And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell,” in Matthew 5:21-22. Proverbs 29:11 advises “A fool gives full vent to his anger, but a wise man keeps himself under control.” We should at least be extremely careful at the things we allow ourselves to get angry at.
Yet again, on the other side, Jesus was angry at the moneychangers in the Temple and at the Pharisees and, of course, God is rightly angry at sin (though he is always “slow to anger”). Some things should make us mad. Sin, for example, should make us mad. Clear evil, unjust suffering, and death should make us mad. Injustice in the world should make us mad. Beale is, at least on the surface, giving voice to that anger.
But anger is difficult to control. It feels good. Once you get all good and angry at something that deserves anger, it becomes very easy to let that anger find some other target. It reminds me of the scene in Forrest Gump when Jenny’s boyfriend hits her. Instead of apologizing, he blames the world. “Things got a little out of hand. It’s just this war and that lying son of a [gun] Johnson and…I would never hurt you. You know that.” He uses his supposedly justified anger at the world to excuse personal violence against a loved one. Getting good and mad about bureaucratic ineptitude, corruption, and the media’s deceitfulness is all well and good—but your anger might just as easily lead to you becoming a mean, spiteful, embittered person as to any meaningful change in society.
But there is more danger when you bring TV or another medium into the picture: watching (or reading, or listening to) someone else get riled up and deliver scripted anger can feel good and make you feel connected to something important. It creates and reinforces a sense of collective grievance. We are mad as hell. Now I belong to a (wholly imaginary, entirely passive) community, one that doesn’t actually do anything or know anybody. And what do we want? We want more anger, because that has become our entertainment. TV stations, radio talk shows, and blogs broadcast anger because righteous indignation feels good.
I don’t think that’s what Paul had in mind when he warned “In your anger do not sin.” Take Beale’s advice, and try turning the TV off. Or at least pick your media carefully. Paul also said “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things,”—not about the things that make you mad.
(Warning: the movie is also saturated in profanity and contains a brief, non-explicit bedroom scene).