I loved Social Network as much as the next person, but I get very very irritated when I see middle aged critics talk about how "it's the film that defines a generation," or some rot of that nature. Perhaps facebook itself does that, but the tale of a nerd defeating his physical superiors with cleverness and wit is a tale as old as time. Nothing in the mechanics of how fictional Mark Zuckerberg achieves this gives credence to this critical canard; he is blinded by power and wealth and betrays his best friend; all the success in the world still doesn't get him the girl.
Network, on the other hand, continues to scream its relevance in my ear.
It Just Keeps Coming Up
Since I've seen Network, there have been dozens of occasions that have made me think "OMG it's Howard Beale in the flesh!" And now we have Charlie Sheen, making a direct callback of his own, calling on his fans to stick their heads out their windows and scream his sitcom catchphrase "Duh, WINNING!"
The Sheen case is probably closest in spirit to the actual narrative of Network: both Sheen and Howard Beale have on-air meltdowns upon the rumors of their firings, and these meltdowns make them media darlings. Both fall from grace when they commit the one cardinal sin of being a media property; they bit the hands that paid them. Both have kicked serious addictions, only to have those addictions replaced by dangerous paranoia (Saudis! Tigerblood! Octagons!).
But these similarities are merely superficial; what about the more serious issues raised by the film, the questions that society still tries to answer?
The Glenn Beck Factor
I saw Network the day before the shooting in Tuscon, Arizona. That day, my primary Really Deep Thought was: witness the birth of Glenn Beck, thirty years before his ascendance. After the shooting, my Really Deep Thought was more complex; that no matter how much power the Glenn Becks and Sarah Palins of the world might have within their own party, even they cannot control their own message once it goes out in the wild. And that is why it's important to control the message you send. To try and prevent it from being warped.
The movie never addresses the true societal cost of the media inflicting a man like Howard Beale on primetime airwaves. That his parochialism and paranoia might be infectious, that it goes beyond mere entertainment.
Beck is but one voice in a systemically dysfunctional culture; he fans the flames of existing animosity, but he can't be given credit for planting the seed. Which makes Howard Beale more powerful, in so many ways; he gets Americans to get off their asses and do something, even if that something is little more than swallowing their embarrassment and shouting out the window. It seems that the only way to kill the message is to kill Beale, but that's false. There's already another brand of lunacy ready to replace Beale in the form of the Symbionese Liberation Army.
We do not live in a cult of personality; we live in a cult of ideology. If you cut off the Beck tentacle or the Palin tentacle, the sea monster will merely grow back new limbs, powerful with fresh venom. Network does well to remind us of this; in public life, all are but cogs in a pre-fashioned wheel. Despite their best attempts, none of these three could actually spark a revolution. There's always someone more powerful who can put a stop as soon as things get dangerous; there's always someone who can redirect the conversation.
Feminism at War With Itself
Faye Dunaway's TV producer is absolutely glorious. She is consumed with ambition and success, but that doesn't make her hard or dissatisfied. She genuinely loves her life, she doesn't feel burdened by a lack of human connection. But the movie treats this as some sort of moral failing. The fact that ratings make her sexually excited is a form of deviance, a break from femininity.
These concerns might have been allayed if Bill Holden wasn't presented as the 'moral conscience' in the film, but he is. In fact, the penultimate scene is his widely praised speech about what a horrible person she is, and how little concern she has for other people. But perhaps Bill Holden is so wrapped up and convinced of his own guilt that there's no point in his admitting it; maybe he just wants her to admit her own culpability in the steady ruining of his life, to give him assurance that it isn't a disaster entirely of his own making.
Which is a bit rich given that he's the one who left his aging wife and disappointed his children on a whim, for a woman who said from the beginning that she's not into relationships. She never lied to him on this point, so it's patently unfair that he lays all the blame at her feet when he leaves. Especially cause we, the audience, know she'll just sweep the floor and get on with her life.
She's a successful career woman who happens to be awesome at her job, and he wants to make her feel bad about that. Not that she's without moral failing, but she is the Rand-ian ideal; she makes the best decisions possible to serve her own success.
ALL IN ALL
The questions that screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky raised so many years ago still lack clear answers today. To what extent is the media culpable for societal failings? Does rhetoric have the power to transform the vision of reality? Can we as a society tell the difference between fact and fiction? These are not the questions answered in Network; in the end the film is a satire of the network process for developing sensational television.
Howard reached a point where he happily and ingenuously constructed a temple to himself, but what about his millions of followers? They don't actually get their day in the sun, they just get to stand on their balconies and howl at the moon. And there will definitely come a point when shouting is not enough; they will crave action. And that's when you lose control of them. That's when you have Jared Loughner, desperate to make some kind of statement but lacks any defining ideology, who then latches on to the loudest voice of the moment.
What does it mean that Charlie Sheen and Howard Beale are not fired for their moral culpability, but for their embarrassment of the men who hold the purse strings? UBS (the fictional media corporation in the movie), like the Mafia, keeps it all in the family. As with the Mafia, there's no greater betrayal than giving away the family secrets. But in a Caesar-like twist the people who killed Howard Beale were the same schemers who crowned him Prince of Righteousness.
CBS has just fired Charlie Sheen. At least they didn't order his assassination.