Can there be a more revealing piece of prophetic art for our times than "Network"?
I used to think the audacious 1976 Oscar-winning movie about a TV anchor who becomes a ratings sensation after losing his mind on air was more than a wee bit too cynical. Now, after the rise of Fox News, President Donald Trump and a new social media age of multitudinous online megaphones, I think the movie might have been too modest.
After all, the movie's memorable news anchor Howard Beale, played by Peter Finch, only aspired to TV stardom. President Trump went from "The Apprentice" all the way to the White House.
Bear with me, Trump fans. I come to praise the self-promotional savvy of our president, not bash him.
My re-examination of "Network," which now tops "Citizen Kane" and "His Girl Friday" among my favorite movies about newspeople, comes after viewing the live onstage remake of "Network," starring Bryan Cranston -- of "Breaking Bad" fame, among other TV and movie hits -- as Beale during the final days of its Broadway run this past week. The play has been nominated for five Tony Awards.
I approached the stage version in the spirit of a question asked by the New Yorker drama critic Alexandra Schwartz: "Does 'Network' still have something to say to us, other than 'I told you so?' "
The storyline by screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky centers on longtime network anchor Beale, who learns he is being fired in two weeks because of declining ratings. He announces on air that he will kill himself on air on the following Tuesday. The network immediately fires him, but he is rehired after agreeing to apologize on air. Instead he launches into an eloquent rant about how TV, the news and life itself are full of BS, only he uses the entire word, not just the initials.
But his firing is halted by an unexpected development. Viewers are delighted by Beale's straight talk. Profane as it may be, they too are tired of the BS. As ratings rise, the network execs make him their star attraction.
His most memorable manic rant produces a fiery catchphrase that has become a modern-day mantra of post-1960s political rage:
"I don't know what to do about the depression and the inflation and the Russians and the crime in the street," he says after a stream of examples of what's wrong in the world. "All I know is that first you've got to get mad. You've got to say, 'I'm a human being, …! My life has value!' So I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window. Open it, and stick your head out, and yell, 'I'M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I'M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!' "
And, as we see on stage and screen, the nation heeds Beale's call to rage. Ratings grow and the show increasingly resembles a real circus, complete with theme music, a live audience and features like -- in the movie -- Sybil the Soothsayer, who purportedly can tell you the news before it happens.
But, alas, as my father used to say, Beale "stopped preaching and went to meddling" when his fiery commentary crossed the line into criticism of the network owners' corporate interests. For all his bluster about not "taking it anymore," Beale does "take it" some more and he loses his audience and his network bosses decide that he has to be killed.
Grim, yes? But that's life. Chayefsky skewered what he saw as corporate television's obsession with ratings at all costs. He died before he could see how Beale's telegenic populism created a playbook for future presidential campaigns, even in this age of stiff competition from countless websites, podcasts and social media.
But a medium is only a channel for a message, which, as Trump's success confirms, often is made most effectively to the heart, not the head. Spare us the details, much of today's voting audience is saying to both parties. "First get mad," says Beale in one of his rants. "Then we'll figure out what to do."
Or not. I wish more people appreciated the details and complexity of today's issues. But I also know that with the growing competition for ears and eyeballs, my journalism teacher's advice, "KISS: keep it simple, stupid," is more persuasive than ever.
Email Clarence Page at email@example.com.