What your view of sports and life would be if you had too many concussions
This movie is on my list of essential films.
NOTE: This installment of Sports Analogies Hidden In Classic Movies is being done as part of a blog-a-thon celebrating William Holden’s centenary (who is in the top ten on my list of favorite actors). This is an event hosted by three awesome classic film blogs, The Wonderful World Of Cinema, The Flapper Dame, and Love Letters To Old Hollywood. If you are a fan of classic films, and you aren’t following these three blogs, your cinematic fan experience is not complete.
For those of you who are already regular readers of Dubsism, you know that weaving the worlds of sports and classic film goes back to very beginnings of this blog. In fact, some have said there are times this blog is like a weird combination of Turner Classic Movies and ESPN. In all honesty, there’s a rather simple reason for that. Broken down to their base elements, sports and cinema are just sub-genres of entertainment; they both contain drama, conflict, and suspense.
It all boils down to this: If you are new to Dubsism and you dig sports and classic films, you’ve probably just discovered a new bookmark. If you are only a classic movie buff, you still can find plenty of content you won’t get anywhere else; you just have to selectively shop our tag cloud.
In any event, since we know participating in this blog-a-thon will expose Dubsism to an entirely new audience…well, to quote another William Holden classic…
“We’re ready for our close-up, Mr. DeMille!”
Despite the fact it was released in 1976, “Network” is frighteningly more timely today than ever.
In short, “Network” is a “watching the sausage being made” journey through the world of the modern news media. Because of when it was made, it pre-dates today’s cable news networks. But despite that tectonic shift, this film aces the test of time.
The main character Howard Beale (played by Peter Finch) is a “Walter Cronkite”-style network news anchor who is being fired because he doesn’t draw ratings. However, while announcing his departure, he tells the world during his final broadcast in one week’s time he will commit suicide on live television. Having made such a sensational threat, Beale’s low ratings suddenly skyrocket. At that point, network executives make the proverbial “deal with the devil.” While they are never really sure what Beale is going to do, they know now people are watching.
Thus begins the struggle of William Holden’s character, Beale’s boss Max Schumacher.
Holden’s character is the holdout for hope. When I’m not blogging about sports or worse yet, making odd analogies between sports and all sorts of stuff including classic films, I’ve been in management in every size company from start-ups to Fortune 500 behemoths. In all that time, I’ve always said that hope is not a strategy; you can’t replace having a plan of action with hope. But on the other hand, even the best laid and executed plans mean little without it. All plans are based on the idea of attaining a goal, and in a world which guarantees nothing, what are we left with?
“Network” is a weird double-helix woven with one strand of hope and another of pure, uncut nihilism. At first, Howard Beale gives hope to the “little guy;” his screed of “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore” serving as his fanfare for the common man. Don’t even try to tell me the scene where people are yelling this out their windows doesn’t have an allegory to today’s social media. And don’t even try to tell me today Howard Beale wouldn’t have an intern managing his Twitter feed; #MadAsHell being a trend-monster.
This odd weaving of hope and nihilism is embodied in the affair between Schumacher and Faye Dunaway’s character, Diana. Dunaway plays a network executive who despite outward appearances is a soulless monster if ever there was one. All she cares about is ratings, and she lives in a world where ratings are the only thing that matters. The deeper into the morass Schumacher sinks with Diana, the more damage he does to his morals and his marriage. Yet somehow he never gives up hope that his old friend Howard Beale will pull out of his death-spiral.
The twist comes with Ned Beatty’s character Arthur Jensen. Jensen is one of those characters who is only on-screen for a few short minutes, but he changes the entire direction of the film. Once Jensen gives Beale his de-humanistic version of “Elmer Gantry,” Peter Finch’s character then becomes the oracle for everything exactly the opposite of what created his rise to modern messiah. He becomes a fountain of a corporate-inspired nihilism, which turns off his viewers.
Despite the fact Beale’s change is killing the network’s ratings, Jensen will not allow him to be fired because he wants the pro-corporate, anti-individual message continued to be broadcast. Once Jensen as the head of the prototypical “evil” international corporation is pitted against the network executives, they devise an alternative plan for dealing with Beale.
While the spiral goes ever downward, Schumacher realizes that Diana’s fanatical devotion to her job and emotional emptiness are a permanent impediment to any relationship, so in the one positive in the end of this film, he goes back to his wife. In the process, he gives Diana a warning that she will ultimately destroy herself because she is “…television incarnate…indifferent to suffering, insensitive to joy. All of life is reduced to the common rubble of banality.”
The Hidden Sports Analogy:
I watched this movie again a few weeks back, and I’m convinced as he was writing it, Paddy Chayevsky had a crystal ball…so much so in this case the sports analogy isn’t so hidden. Whatever Chayevsky had gave a direct insight to what is happening at ESPN right now. Replace the movie’s “United Broadcasting System” with today’s ESPN and the comparison is almost perfectly linear, with the exception being the ending of “Network” goes further than has ESPN …yet (yes, I’m deliberately avoiding spoiling the ending because anybody who has not yet seen this film needs to do so given the current toxic environment presently in American media)
Let’s start with the fact ESPN’s problems started when it was acquired by the “evil” multi-national corporation…in this case Disney. Since then, ESPN went from the “World Wide Leader” to the “World Wide Bottom Feeder.” Just like how UBS was willing to feast on the carcass of Howard Beale until his bones bleached in the sun, ESPN has a long history of hiring people to say outrageous things, then firing them for doing exactly that.
Think about it. Dive into the deepest recesses of your brain and come up with something Rush Limbaugh and Jemele Hill could possibly have in common. The essential mix which forms “Network”-style nihilism is equal parts hypocrisy and cowardice. ESPN has been a “poster-child” for political correctness for years, yet it is clear that as an organization it does not believe those rules it enforces upon others don’t apply to the “World Wide Leader.” Worse yet, from a leadership perspective ESPN didn’t have the guts to support the people they hired to say non-politically correct things once they caught any criticism.
That’s why like UBS, ESPN can’t afford to stand behind the “monsters” it creates, if for no other reason than the short-term gains of controversy ultimately morph into long-term liability. That’s also why like UBS, ESPN suffered for abandoning that which made it great.
If UBS had just taken Howard Beale off the air instead of trying to capitalize on his new-found notoriety, we don’t get this movie’s horrific end. Had ESPN had simply stuck to sports instead of trying to be a contrived “voice of social consciousness,” its ratings wouldn’t be in free-fall and it wouldn’t have gone through multiple rounds of lay-offs.
The Moral of the Story:
Hope becomes meaningless if you sacrifice your principles.
P.S. Regardless of whether you participate in the blog-a-thon or not, please consider donating to the William Holden Wildlife Foundation, which was created by Stefanie Powers in 1982 in honor of her partner.