Well, I guess it's not like we weren't warned about reality TV.
Bitingly satirical and still frighteningly relevant the best part of four decades after its release, the 1976 classic Network continues to provide a scathing analysis of the ratings-driven media and the sheep public that fuel them.When long-time news anchor Howard Beale is told that he’s got two weeks left on air due to diminishing ratings, he announces to the world that he’s going to shoot himself in the head on live TV on his last day in office. Immediately fired, the powers that be soon reconsider their decision when the ratings skyrocket, with an ambitious female programming head keen to turn Beale into a one-man circus, and build a series of outlandish programmes around his increasingly off-the-wall antics.As Beale goes through a full nervous breakdown, the network merely seek to capitalise on the public thirst for this insanity, although all of the producers, shareholders and even the company chairman are hoping that they can still somehow control the monster that they made.
With an all-star cast pulling out all of the stops to drive this piece, the late, great Director Sidney Lumet’s charged socio-political satire takes no prisoners in its depiction of the cold-blooded media, and the gullible, bloodthirsty public that drive them in their desperate, endless chicken-and-egg loop. Peter Finch commands the screen with his committed portrayal of Howard Beale, whilst William Holden attempts to give the piece some sombre reflection as the likes of Robert Duvall, Ned Beatty and Faye Dunaway make increasingly ambitious power-plays. It's hard not to despise almost everybody on-screen - apart from Finch's victim - but this is totally in-keeping with the intention behind the material.
It's with bittersweet irony that, in today's climate, this scathing critique of the media feels more like a model for modern reality TV programming.
Indeed writer Paddy Chayefsky’s screenplay became the blueprint for future satires, itself inspired by a real-life anchor who killed herself live on-air the month before Chayefsky started writing his script, and inspiration for countless future projects (Aaron Sorkin credited it as such, and you can see the immediate similarities in his update of the material for The Social Network), right up until the recent, excellent Nightcrawler.
Ultimately it’s a prescient piece which envisages a world driven by increasingly preposterous reality TV, and by flocks of individuals all desperate to have their own 15 minutes of fame. If only they could see their Orwellian vision made reality in today’s TV industry. Highly recommended.
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