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We Ran Out of Bullshit

Forty years since the release of ‘Network,’ Paddy Chayefsky’s stunning indictment of the news media, Donald Trump has confirmed the movie’s prescient, fourth-wall-smashing satire

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In 1976, Donald J. Trump was on the precipice of an empire. Having recently taken over his father’s business and renamed it the Trump Organization, he began drawing plans for expansion that culminated in a deal for the city to build what would become midtown Manhattan’s Jacob K. Javits Convention Center. (Notably, the space where Hillary Clinton will gather with supporters on election night.) That same year, he was profiled in The New York Times, the first of many standalone stories in the newspaper he has come to decry during this election cycle. “He is tall, lean and blond,” Judy Klemesrud wrote in a story published on November 1, “with dazzling white teeth, and he looks ever so much like Robert Redford.” A star was born in the pages of the Gray Lady that day, 40 years ago.

With a comparison to a matinee idol in hand, one of the highest-profile real estate portfolios in Manhattan, and a growing sense of public identity, it’s not difficult to picture Trump observing one of that year’s biggest hits and a future Best Picture nominee, also released in November. With a little imagination, I can picture Trump finding wisdom in its absurdity and profundity in its acid-dipped message: Money is power is fame is power is money.

For decades, pundits and media analysts have pointed to that movie — director Sidney Lumet’s 1976 film Network — as an eerily predictive work of art, one that confirms the rise of the corporatized news media, tabloid culture, sycophantic reality television programming, and feverish idolatry. It is now accepted as fact that Paddy Chayefsky, the volcanic and inspired playwright and screenwriter behind Marty, was a prescient fortune-teller, like the Sybil the Soothsayer character rendered in Network. The movie, which won four Oscars, including one for Chayefsky’s screenplay, is considered his masterpiece. But truth wasn’t the point exactly — though Chayefsky knew the TV news industry was trending in a discomfiting direction, his work was meant to be seen as satire. But the past 12 months have helped redefine Network, revealing an ugly truth — not just about the fungible nature of power and the tools of communication in America, but especially about the people who operate them.

In the movie, Peter Finch plays Howard Beale, a news anchor in the mold of Walter Cronkite, who, in the aftermath of his wife’s death, sagging ratings, and a bout with alcoholism, melts down during a broadcast. He’s recently been let go by the network, the fictional UBS. While serving out his final days, Beale delivers a series of on-air monologues about his own imminent suicide, the “bullshit” nature of existence, and then, famously, a sprawling rant that birthed the popular exhortation, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” With a catchphrase in tow, Beale — the “Mad Prophet of the Airwaves” — became a meme before such a thing existed, a Harambe for a heavy generation. Beale is an iconic figure, a philosophizing, soliloquizing caricature who seems at once touched by a higher power and also deeply unwell. Finch plays him beautifully but simply: a wild-eyed man in a dark suit yelling into your TV about the end times. Sound familiar?

‘Network’ (Getty Images)
‘Network’ (Getty Images)

That is the easy jump, to correlate Trump — a beneficiary of reality TV and an increasingly voracious news media — with Beale and Chayefsky’s vision. But there is something else here, something more insidious. Network is a stunning and immersive ensemble story, with strands that twist through the station’s hierarchy, from the wearied president of the news division played by William Holden to Robert Duvall’s carnivorous corporate hatchet man. The movie ultimately turns on a figure of great import — Arthur Jensen, the chairman of CCA, the imaginary global corporation that has recently purchased UBS and supported Beale’s rise as a truth-telling TV sensation. Network is a movie made of big scenes and thunderous speeches — Chayefsky is a dialogic maestro who writes best for soloists — but there is one in particular that smacks of “Now!” It’s Jensen’s second (and last) scene, in which, after Beale torpedoes a deal between CCA and a Saudi Arabian conglomerate, the chairman delivers to the Mad Prophet an exegesis on the international system of wealth and influence:

Beale receives this jeremiad, delivered with a malevolent rumble by Ned Beatty in a riveting cameo, as if he were narcotized by Jensen’s oratory — he is an instant, if somnambulant, convert. He goes on TV shortly thereafter to preach Jensen’s theory of everything. Life is meaningless, there is no individual, bow to the dollar. Cash rules everything around us. After delivering his depressing state of affairs, Beale’s ratings dip. Things turn sour. Then they turn grim.

In a conversation with The New York Times in 2011 about the movie, Stephen Colbert observed, “Beale is a hopeless character who ultimately does not succeed in what he wants to do, and is killed. He’s not a messianic figure.”

Beale is assassinated, in a self-immolating coup perpetrated by his own TV network that is plotted in a conspiratorial meetup that would seem farcical if it weren’t so completely logical. Jensen is not seen again, though he has won.

Is Donald Trump Howard Beale, raging to the masses about how we can all be “great” again while serving a corporate father? Or is he Jensen, the cynical titan of fiscal influence, seeing the big picture and seizing the only power that matters? He’s both, and neither. Trump rose to prominence by applying the lessons of both characters — to view business deals as the ultimate achievement, the currency of daily life. He stayed prominent by corralling as much media in as many forms as he could entice or buy. Given the convergence of these agencies, Trump has been both elevated in the American consciousness and utterly compromised.

“If you think about the confluence of corporate conflicts of interest that arose at NBC over the Billy Bush tape, it’s pretty much what Chayefsky was warning about in the film,” says Dave Itzkoff, a New York Times reporter and the author of Mad As Hell, an essential book documenting the making of Network. “You have a real-life network (NBC) that had muddied the waters between its entertainment and news divisions, so that when it became clear that this tape existed, no one knew whether NBC’s responsibility was to report it as news or to suppress it (and thereby protect its entertainment interests).

“It’s a real-life reflection of the world that Arthur Jensen is describing in his speech, where business and corporate interests have to prevail over political/national ones. Like he says, there are no nations.”

Corporate structures own more media entities than ever before. (HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer!) But there are other reverberations from the film, too. Trump — whose campaign is predicated on a “Listen, I’m telling you the real deal” sort of straight talk — has inspired the same kind of fourth-wall-bashing that made Beale a sensation. Last Friday’s episode of Real Time With Bill Maher featured not one, but two segments in which Maher dropped his shtick and urged viewers to get serious about this election. His desperation was both mesmerizing and unsettling. And then one night later, Saturday Night Live intentionally cut its opening sketch short to offer a meta-observational moment about the rancor this election has sown even within its own cast and writing staff. During this election season, even comedy can’t help but crash through your TV with a mad-as-hell self-consciousness.

In the last decade of his life, Chayefsky made three films — 1971’s The Hospital, Network, and 1980’s Altered States. Together, this trilogy forms an allegorical triptych about American consciousness, striking three key themes — health, expression, and identity. These are three core ideas that are as essential to how we think about ourselves and the country today as they were when Chayefsky was crafting them nearly half a century ago. They don’t make satires like Network anymore, for a number of reasons. Life got too weird. Chayefsky’s ideas are still resonant and unnervingly useful — but I don’t think he could have conjured an appropriate satire of this very moment.

Early in the film, when Beale first begins to crack, he delivers the following lines:

Paddy Chayefsky (Getty Images)
Paddy Chayefsky (Getty Images)

Anyone waiting for that line of reasoning at a concession speech Tuesday night will likely be left waiting for a good long while. Donald Trump has neither experienced an epiphany, nor is he a cosmic leader sent straight from the boardroom of an omniscient corporation. By all accounts, like Beale, he’s a showman, searching for a network he can call his own. Literally, his own, if he can raise the capital. Why? It’s simple, right there in the movie.

At the end of Jensen’s roaring speech, Beale asks the chairman why he has been chosen to deliver the great message handed down from CCA’s messianic mountaintops. Jensen pauses, and then lightly responds: “Because you’re on television, dummy.”