Saturday, 14 January 2012

Network: A Screenplay Analysis

Screenplay Analysis by: 
Petros L. Ioannou

Network is a 1976 film about the “first known instance of a man to be killed because of lousy ratings.” It is an absurd jaunt into a satirical and yet extremely potent and spellbinding world written by three-time Academy Award winning screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky. The story revolves around a news anchor called Howard Beale who has an on-air meltdown and threatens to blow his brains out live on national television on the fictional UBS network. This in turn creates a series of events that lead to him becoming something of a television messiah to the people and leading the people around him to get dragged through his insanity crisis as we the audience get dragged into the insane world of television that Chayefsky created.

If there’s one way to describe the events of this film it’s “Snowball Effect”. One event leads to a bigger one, which in turn creates another bigger event, and starts a chain reaction that results in one of the most bizarre and insane scenarios ever played out on screen and yet one of the most powerful messages. From the very start we’re told about Howard’s life up to this point by the narrator. He was the number one news anchor in America until his wife left him, his ratings dropped, Howard began to drink and now his ratings have dramatically dropped and he’s been fired. Before the film’s even begun a snowball effect has started, he gets depressed because of one incident after another and it is something we can all relate to in our lives unless you’ve led a bizarrely perfect carefree life. He gets depressed from the mountain of stress that piled on him. Knowing from personal experience I know how tough that can be, stress can make you lose sleep, it can make you lose weight, it can make you lose your appetite and cause all kinds of havoc with your personal and professional lives and that’s what’s happened to Howard, before this film has even begun.  This is compounded by other people’s lives intertwining to enhance this snowball effect. How  Max’s problems with the restricting of the News Division leads him to angrily let Howard continue his “I ran out of bullshit” rant on the air, which in turn spikes the ratings and gets Howard on the show and begins the insane rise in popularity and his eventual death.

It’s strange; you can almost look at Howard’s personal journey as vaguely similar to that of recent events in history. In particular, the utter insanity and eventual firing that recently surrounded formerly TV’s highest paid actor, Charlie Sheen.  Sheen completely lost his mind, he ranted and raved in interviews and uStreams leading to him getting fired from the show. Sheen’s rants were indeed some of the most insane things we’ve ever heard spoken aloud, “I have tiger blood and Adonis DNA” or “I’m an F18 Bro, I’m tired of pretending that I’m not a total bitchin’ rockstar from Mars”, or my personal favourite, “Brrrr!!! Hold on stupid plane above with noise attached!! WINNING!!” Suffice to say Charlie Sheen really went off the deep end in a manner so bizarre not even a movie could write that kind of thing. Even Howard in Network is speaking an iota of sense in his madness, Sheen just went balls-to-the-wall insane. However what is very similar is the way their madness was used and abused to the benefit of gaining ratings. When Sheen was finally fired from his job on Two and a Half Men, he was replaced with actor Ashton Kutcher. At the same time Comedy Central hired Sheen to do one of their famous “roasts” with him, where an assortment of friends and other comedians mock him live on stage before he gets a rebuttal and decided to air it right after the first episode of Two and Half Men with Ashton Kutcher. Kutcher’s first episode gained the CBS show a 26.8 Million viewership, the highest the show had ever recorded, higher than any episode where Sheen was in the lead role, it was not however because of Kutcher, but because of Sheen’s madness and the fallout from which people wanted to see what happened. At the same time, Comedy Central got it’s highest ratings in the Cable Network’s history for Charlie Sheen’s roast. However since then the ratings for Two and a Half Men have rapidly dwindled. The madness Charlie Sheen almost seems like it’s what inspired the madness of Howard Beale only Network was actually written over thirty-five years before Sheen ever started crying that he was “Winning”, Sheen was only eleven years old when this movie hit theatres.

But it’s not just Sheen that Howard Beale seems to be like, he’s reminiscent of people like Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly. Unlike Howard Beale, these are real people, who genuinely think that what they’re saying makes perfect sense. But they’re really tools to the political machine, just like Howard becomes towards the end of the script, and for lack of a better expression “shit-stirrers”. People who throw all multitudes of “the truth” or what they believe is the truth at the audience, and reject any notion that they could possibly be wrong. And networks like FOX and MSNBC are perfectly willing to let them go insane live on the air scream at callers and tell people that there is absolutely a God because the “sun goes up, sun goes down, never a miscommunication”, for one simple reason. Ratings, these rants and raves bring in ratings just like Sheen did; and most importantly just like Howard Beale did in the screenplay for Network. Each of these commentators who spouts that they and they alone speak “the truth” be they politically inclined to the left or right considers themselves to be the man standing in front of the camera screaming “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” But they’re not. They’re tools used for ratings, just like Howard Beale becomes. The film is almost prophetic in its presentation, a satire of present day news shows written thirty years before the present day. It’s as though Paddy Chayefsky travelled thirty years into the future, got mad as hell at the state of television news, got his ideas, travelled back and put pen to paper to write one of the most incredible screenplays ever written.

And yet even as I write this analysis of what is an incredible screenplay it’s brought to my attention the grandest irony in all of this. This is screenplay, with a political message about TV stupification, in film, now being broadcast on TV being taken away and having it analysed by a film student studying how to put something on the screen.

I could go on for hours about the political message of this screenplay, its prophetic nature and the grand irony in me, a film student writing a screenplay analysis on it. But let’s look at the characters for a moment outside of Howard. Everyone is a product of their generation; Diana is a cold calculating “programmed droid” who was raised by television who can’t deal with “primal doubts” that every human has so she simply ignores them and lets them build up as they slowly rot her from the core to the point that she willingly has a man executed for having poor ratings and doesn’t give a second thought to it, the world is a television show with three act stories for movie of the week. Then there is Max an older man going through a mid-life crisis, his traditional values feel askew in this confusing new world where his friends either go crazy, abandon him or die of a heart attack. He leaves his wife, his family and his life behind to be with Diana because nothing else makes sense in this world and he wants to be a part of the new one or least bring a part of his world into the new one that Diana represents and as with their relationship and his attempts to try and be a part of Howard Beale’s raving ranting ratings success, it is an abject failure because he does not belong in the new world. Finally there is one scene with the famous Arthur Jensen, the owner of the parent company that owns the parent company that owns the Network. He is the top dog of all top dogs, and in a single scene with a single monologue has more power and insanity burning through him than the whole of the rest of the cast. “It is the international system of currency that determines the totality of life on this planet. That is the natural order of things today.” – How prophetic this statement is. This film was made before the fall of the Soviet Union and that would be theisr own downfall. The political furore of this film and his character as he espouses it is incredible! “The World is a Business Deal.” How right he is as he continues to say that the “individual is finished..... people are as replaceable as piston rods”. How right is he? Howard Beale’s death has advertisements rolling over it. That should say it all.

Network is preachy, overbearing, unsubtle and yet very subtle, methodical, emotional. It stands on a soap box but does it through personal characters. It might just be one of the best films ever made, on par with Citizen Kane and The Godfather even. Rocky is my favourite films of all time. Taxi Driver is also an amazing film. But how this didn’t win best picture is absolutely BEYOND ME! It thoroughly deserved winning Best Screenplay however and it stands the test of time so well, it’s like prophetic gospel!