By Craig Joseph
Network is the story of Howard Beale, a news anchorman who’s forced into early retirement. The stress of dismissal messes with Howard’s mind – or does it just make him clearer? – and in his final broadcast, he harangues the audience, the higher-ups and society. What should spell disaster for the network results in the program’s highest ratings ever – and the remainder of the film finds everyone – from his pal, Max, to a barracuda of a programming director (Faye Dunaway), to a malevolent network owner (an amazing monologue by Ned Beatty) – trying to co-opt Howard’s nightly diatribes for their ends. The network has a great run, but he proves impossible to control, and is horrifically (and hilariously) “taken care of.”
I loved this film when I saw it. I still think it’s one of the cleverest screenplays of all time, with zingers and speeches that a talented cast delivers with panache (the film took Oscars for best screenplay and three of the four acting awards). And I was probably – in my early 20s – enamored of anything with a satirical and even nasty edge to it.
I still love it, but now – having spent the past decade reading and re-reading the Old Testament book of Jeremiah to better understand my own prophetic temperament – I come at it with a different lens, raising new questions.
Shouldn’t true prophets be both destructive and constructive? It is easy to reveal society’s foibles and destroy a people’s illusions – to mock and tear down. It is much harder work to suggest what goes in their place, inspiring a populace to new visions and fresh initiative. I am reminded of Jeremiah, who both takes the Israelites to task for their infidelity, warning of the temple’s destruction, and then inspires them – in exile – to envision a new existence, planting gardens in Babylon and prepping for their future return home. Against critique and hope, Howard Beale’s razor-sharp rants lose some of their potency without any constructive agenda other than “go yell out your window” or “go write your senator.” Likewise, Diana is a prophetess of sorts, keenly forecasting the outrageous shows that will make network a lot of money (truly frightening is how many are on television today); she builds the network back up. But she lacks the “destructive” edge – that sense of discernment or critique that would excise garbage from her own line-up. And though I love it, I name Chayefsky’s screenplay a brilliant satire, but not, in the end, prophetic. It leaves me shaking my head at human folly, but not particularly called to action.
Also, on whose behalf does a true prophet speak? Truth, in prophetic cases, seems to come from beyond without getting mired in the prophet’s own needs and desires. My being pissed about your bad behavior and wanting to chew you out with news of your error does not make me a prophet. Diana’s fawning need for love and validation that sharpens her read of human nature and Nielsen’s ratings do not make her a prophet. And Howard’s mental illness is something else entirely. The true prophet is merely a conduit, I think, for a message outside of herself.