I tend to stay away from politics in this blog. I prefer this blog to be a source of entertainment and sometimes education, and politics have become so divisive over the past few years that I would prefer not to alienate readers over potentially controversial political positions. However, it is undeniable that cinema is often a vehicle for politics. Many great filmmakers over the years have used their films to espouse their political points of view, and in fact most films have some general point of view about the state of the world, which inevitably circle back to a political philosophy.
There is one film, in particular, that intersects cinema and politics in a way that few films ever have, and that film is Network. This is one of my favorite films and I have always contended that it predicted many of the things that we live with in our lives today. It predicted the advent of reality television. It predicted radical terrorism. It predicted news divisions becoming for profit entities as networks were acquired by corporations. It predicted that multi-national corporations would become de-facto governments (lobbying). And it predicted that the news would start to become more sensational (Fox News, MSNBC) and entertainment-based. A straight line can be drawn from The Howard Beale Show in Network to The Daily Show, Last Week Tonight, The Colbert Report, Full Frontal With Samantha Bee, and many others.
And now, I daresay that Network has also predicted the rise of Donald Trump. There’s no way that the filmmakers could have known that Trump would be the individual, but they did predict that a charismatic man could grow in power and prominence by taking people’s fears and stirring them into anger. I have posted this clip on the blog before, but it’s worth another look for our purposes.
Last year’s presidential campaign, especially during the Republican primaries, was the most watched in our lifetime, and that had to do with Donald Trump. What’s more, since he started his campaign out by making some very controversial statements, the media, always now in need of high ratings, followed Trump constantly in the hopes that he would continue to do that, which he did in a way that continuously upped the ante. It all became a vicious cycle that ended up providing Trump with millions of dollars’ worth of free airtime. His campaign sucked all of the air out of the room, and none of the other Republican candidates were able to get their messages out.
In fact, more people watched the Republican debates than had ever watched debates before. Do you think that those new viewers were watching because they cared about policy? Of course not. If that had been the case, then the Democrat debates would have had the same numbers for viewership, and they did not. No, people were watching because reality TV had taken over the presidential race. They watched to see what outrageous thing Trump would say next, or what kind of goofy facial expression he’d make, or whether he’d talk about the size of his dick. And CNN and FOX and ABC and NBC gladly displayed this sideshow for all of the ratings it got them and all of the advertising dollars that followed.
Watch the clip again. Watch what happens after Howard Beale (Peter Finch) starts to go on his rant, specifically right after he intensely looks into the camera and tells the people, “I want you to get mad!” With that, news producer Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) starts to smile as though sensing an opportunity. Then, by the time Beale has completely broken down and is beseeching his audience to go to their windows and yell outside, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”, and Diana is told that people are doing just that in cities around the country, she exclaims, “We’ve hit the mother load!” Now, most people when they see someone having a breakdown will try and figure out a way to get that person some help. Diana looked at him as a way to improve her ratings.
There was a time when there were three news networks. During that time, anchormen like Walter Cronkite, Edward R. Murrow and David Brinkley gave us the news in a straightforward way. They were among the most trusted men in America. What’s more, the networks knew that operating in this way was not profitable, but they were willing to write off the news divisions as long as they were making enough money in other places. They saw presenting the news as their civic responsibility. Over the last 40 years, as Network predicted, as corporate entities gained control over the networks, news divisions were required to become more and more profitable. In order to become profitable, they had to have more viewers, and in order to get more viewers they have to be more and more sensational. Creating that sensationalism has garnered many news organizations much in profit, but they’ve gotten to the point where hardly anything on television news is believed anymore. At this point in time, are there any institutions that are less trusted than television news? I would venture to say that no, there is not.
Donald Trump came along last year and used that notion to his advantage. Again, look at the first 40 seconds of Beale’s rant during the clip. If you close your eyes, you might think that you’re listening to a Trump campaign speech. We live in a time where people have stopped believing that their government and other institutions that run our daily lives have our best interests at heart. In 1976, a fictional Howard Beale told America that, and he became the number one television star in the country. Exactly forty years later, a real-life Donald Trump told America that and got elected President of the United States.
Therein lies the genius of the film Network. Give it a look if you haven’t seen it recently. Paddy Chayefsky’s brilliant screenplay and Sidney Lumet’s equally brilliant direction created a film that is timeless because it is timely. They created a character dubbed “The Mad Prophet”, and he attained a cult-like status. He attained that status because a news media, hungry for prophets, saw him as a useful tool. Until they didn’t to the point where their power brokers had to conceive of a notion that should have been inconceivable in order to get him off the air.
Now we have a man that the media saw as a useful tool, and their insatiable appetite for ratings and profit launched him to heights that the media probably didn’t believe possible. Network predicted that this could happen, and happened it has.