Network, one of the big movie hits of 1976, now seems prophetic in both senses of the word. The Old Testament prophet is typically less interested in seeing into the future than in denouncing the iniquities already present in the world. Howard Beale, the deranged TV news anchor created by Paddy Chayefsky, is a comic, deluded, but nonetheless captivating descendant of Jeremiah or Ezekiel.
But the film has also come to seem prophetic in the more colloquial sense. Even before the rise of Donald Trump, Aaron Sorkin, the creator of The West Wing, claimed that “no predictor of the future—not even Orwell—has ever been as right as Chayefsky was when he wrote Network.” The film deals with the rise of infotainment, the decline of hard news, the birth of a culture in which we are assailed by an unending storm of images, the collapse of objective reality, and the emergence of a global market. The tycoon Jensen instructs Beale:
We no longer live in a world of nations and ideologies, Mr. Beale. The world is a collage of corporations, inexorably determined by the immutable by-laws of business.
This may seem obvious now. It was not in 1976, when China was still Maoist and the Soviet Union seemed certain to endure. As if that was not prescient enough, Network also appears to foreshadow in the United States a politics of pure rage. It is not just that Beale’s televised rant echoes through into the present, but that the echoes seem to grow louder all the time:
I don’t want you to protest. I don’t want you to riot. I don’t want you to write your congressmen. Because I wouldn’t know what to tell you to write…. All I know is first you’ve got to get mad. You’ve got to say, “I’m a human being, goddammit. My life has value.” So I want you to get up now. I want you to get out of your chairs and go to the window. Right now. I want you to go to the window, open it, and stick your head out and yell. I want you to yell, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this any more!”
It is not at all surprising that Ivo van Hove’s often stunning staging of Lee Hall’s adaptation of Network, with the mesmerizing Bryan Cranston in the role of Beale—for which Peter Finch won a posthumous Oscar in 1977—is the great success of the current London theater season. When Michelle Dockery, as the cynical and amoral program executive Diana, argues that the articulation of rage is better box office than “the business of morality,” the lines feel, after the era of Trump, like a recognition scene in a Greek tragedy. How many networks, after all,…
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