Network is a story of suicide. Anyone who’s seen the 1976 film by Sydney Lumet, or even the more recent hit theater adaptation, will, of course, remember the story’s inciting incident: veteran newscaster Howard Beale (Peter Finch) has been fired after a long slow ratings decline, and, in a fit of despair, declares on live TV that he’ll blow his brains out in front of the cameras the following week. What’s less obvious, though, is that Beale succeeds in committing suicide, though it takes him much longer than a mere few days. And, the full significance of this fact makes the story’s most stirring moments at the same time its darkest ones.
In particular, there’s the scene that many people know even if they’ve never actually seen it, because it’s become such a common pop culture reference. Through the manipulations of ambitious programming director Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway), Beale has been kept on the air to deliver nightly, profanity-laced rants on the CBC network. However, this has led to only middling ratings success, and caused Beale to suffer a rapid mental decline. One day, having collapsed the night before after claiming divine inspiration, Beale goes missing. However, he wanders into the studio that evening wearing rain soaked pajamas and a trench coat, and delivers the film’s most memorable monologue:
I don’t want you to riot. I don’t want you to protest. I don’t want you to write your congressmen. Because I wouldn’t know what to tell you to write. I don’t know what to do about the depression and the inflation and the defense budget and the Russians and crime in the street. All I know is first you got to get mad. You’ve got to say: ‘I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this any more. 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!
In this moment, Beale sparks all the rage and despair of mid-1970s America into an explosion of national catharsis. In cities across the country, people howl Beale’s mantra out of their windows en masse.
This moment of unbridled release serves to move Network’s audience almost as much as Beale’s. However, the rest of the story functions to undermine this moment. Christensen’s been in search of the ultra-sensational hit that will dig CBC out of the ratings dump. After this incident, then, she springs into action, marketing Beale as ‘the mad prophet of the airways’ for The Howard Beale Show, in which his rants serve to introduce segments on pop astrology, trashy sex, and faux-serious social commentary. At the same time, Christensen cuts a deal with an ultra-left organization called the Ecumenical Liberation Army to acquire footage they’ve taken of various terrorist acts they’ve committed, around which she builds a docudrama series called The Mao Tse-Tung Hour. The two shows are aired in a back-to-back block that makes the CBC the number one network on television.
The lesson here, of course, is an old Marxist one: capitalism can take any social force—including the forces of rebellion against capitalism—and harness it for its own purposes. Christensen’s genius lies in channeling anger. There’s Beale, of course, whose rage at having become an aging derelict she channels into explosive, half-coherent ravings that in turn harness the anger of his audience into spectatorship and advertising dollars. But in addition to Beale, there’s Laureen Hobbs (Marlene Warfield)—a leftist public intellectual crafted in parody of Angela Davis: the black communist activist with a giant afro—whose anger at capitalism Christensen successfully transforms into an obsession with money and ratings to match her own. And, there’s Max Schumacher (William Holden), Beale’s friend and former producer, whose anger at having his position usurped by Christensen she channels into obsessive love for her.
In each case, Christensen channels anger into profit, but also into self-destruction. Hobbs betrays her ideals and becomes an arch-capitalist. Schumacher betrays his wife and knowingly makes himself a tired cliche: the wrinkled old man who burns down his life to chase after an unattainable younger woman.
Most of all, though, Beale dissolves into his TV persona. Beale is, in one sense, the main character of Network. However, after his initial breakdown, he becomes a cipher. We’re given windows into other characters’ inner lives and motivations, while Beale’s become ever more opaque. Beale the newscaster, the beloved journalist, the long time friend—all of these drop away, and for most of the rest of the film, we only get to see him as his TV audience does. However, through his further TV appearances, Beale becomes just another character on TV. His mantra, which began as an expression of raw desperation, becomes an insipid catch phrase chanted by studio audiences at the start of every episode. He continues to rage against the system, but the rage he thereby inspires in his audience functions in just the way that any aspect of the TV-watching experience does: an affect whose intensity simply serves to hook in viewers intently enough for them to pay attention to the commercials.
We only catch a glimpse of Beale off-camera one more time: in the scene that initiates the film’s third act. Beale discovers that the CBC’s parent company CCA is being bought by a Saudi conglomerate, and stirs up his audience to write to their leaders in Washington in mass protest. When they do, threatening the bottom line, Beale is confronted by CCA chairman Howard Jensen (Ned Beatty) who delivers, like God from the height of the mountain, a divine mandate: the natural order of the world is the system of currency, organized into companies rather than nations; and governed by the ebb and flow of markets rather than the principles of democracy, socialism, totalitarianism, or any other form of political organization.
Crucially, Beale is thoroughly converted by this experience. Through the sheer divine fervor with which Jensen delivers his monologue, Beale comes to recognize him as the light of inspiration he’s been seeking all along, exclaiming in rapture “I have seen the face of God!” His TV rants, then, take a right turn. He begins preaching the holy doctrine of capitalism, urging his viewers to rejoice in the death of democracy and individual identity—their dissolution into the ways of capital—as if it’s a form of ecstatic unity with the divine.
Why, then, does Howard Beale die? After all, he’s embraced the system against which he formerly railed. In fact, he celebrates it with an evangelist’s passion. But Network’s ultimate lesson is clear, if we take to heart the message he preaches. Beale’s own private convictions don’t matter any more than his audience’s: all that matters is the role the activity resulting from them plays in the world financial system. Beale’s rage against the system produced ratings, and so it was given this system’s blessing. Conversely, his embrace of it doesn’t, and so the system must destroy him. Jensen has decreed from on high that Beale’s show must stay on the air, but even the company chairman’s wishes don’t matter: the higher-ups at the CBC decide to have Beale assassinated as casually as they would decide to cancel any show. And, of course, to generate maximum ratings, they have it done on live TV. Howard Beale’s suicide is then accomplished.
Today, we’ve all become Howard Beales. First, in the dominant forms of contemporary communication—what we oxymoronically call social media—there is no longer any distinction between performer and audience. Social media, that is, has pulled off the remarkable feat of making its consumers into its labor force: ‘content producers’ who are all the more eager for our work because it seems to us like our primary means of self-creation and self-expression. We fancy ourselves prophets preaching the gospel of our precious identities. Like bearded fanatics on the street corner, we spew our opinions, our creations, and our convictions, each vomitous stream only a trickle in an ocean of noise.
However, it matters not at all what we say. And this is because the success of a communicative act is measured, not by its content, but by the number of ‘reactions’ it generates. Reaction is now a marketer’s term of art, measured in views, follows, likes, and reposts. The quality of the reaction is irrelevant: all that matters is their quantity. And since, as we all know, the communicative acts that produce the most reactions are those that produce the most anger and irritation, provocation has become their dominant aim. Instead of being the dull buffoon that his political enemies—to their own detriment—portray him to be, Donald Trump is, in fact, the rhetorical genius of the age, on a par with Cicero or Martin Luther King Jr: the absolute master of this linguistic landscape.
As a result, we’re committing slow suicide. Like Beale, each of us is always already guilty of an original sin: the sin of dissipating reactions. Of course, there’s the simple fact that the vast majority of us engage in communicative acts that only garner some tiny number of such reactions. But even the mightiest ‘influencers’ with millions in their audiences share in the guilt, at any moment subject to a slide into obscurity. As a result, we howl all the more loudly: documenting and posting every moment of life, and babbling every trivial judgment. The roar is deafening, and serves only to empower the instrument of our death as we decline into a species-wide screaming match.
In one genre of apocalypse narrative, there is the classic moment when the human race turns on itself: an orgy of violence in which we wipe ourselves out. We become the walking dead, or the thing; or make way for the apes in a nuclear apocalypse. The current mass suicide, though, is something more sinister: death by collective, futile attempts by everyone to shout everyone else down. Worse, we mistake this quarreling for human connection. Like would-be prophets, we feel elevated by an ever-expanding network of followers, and in our narcissism call such followers our friends. And, the profits roll in: the true function of such links operates with perfect efficiency as we gather dividends in the form of assurances that we are the voices of our gods, which of course are our selves. All the while, our collective roar is transforming human communication into something barely recognizable as such: a demise of language, and thus of us, into mere clamor.