In 1951, on the heels of a massive success with Sunset Boulevard (1950), director Billy Wilder set out for his most cynical endeavor yet with Ace in the Hole (1951): a scathing critique of sensationalized media centered around a disgraced, parasitic newspaper journalist who aims to exploit the story of a man trapped in a New Mexico cave in order to get back on top. In 1976, coming off a critically acclaimed hit with Dog Day Afternoon (1975), a film itself inspired by a sensationalized media story, Sidney Lumet turned his attention to satirizing the very subject that gives such stories a platform to reach their audience: television. Network (1976) is a film about the dangers of compromising the moral integrity of news journalism for the sake of entertainment and ratings. Paddy Chayefsky penned what some consider to be a clairvoyant script in how accurately it portrays the resounding madness of our current political landscape and the media that inflates it. The common thread between these two films is their criticism of sensationalized media, explored through the world of print news and that of televised programming.
Wherever you get your daily news from — Fox News, CBS, the Wall Street Journal, Facebook, etc. — what’s most evident is that the stories that get the most attention are usually about the latest series of deaths or horrific crimes being committed every day. The unfortunate truth goes further to see that this has always been the case: no matter where the information comes from, it’s always going to be the worst news first. Chuck Tatum, the character played by Kirk Douglas in Ace in the Hole, certainly holds this philosophy, which he explains in detail to the young photographer sent along with him when they stumble across local cave explorer Leo Minosa, trapped by an unexpected cave-in. Up until now Tatum has been brooding about being stuck in the uneventful town of Albuquerque, waiting more than a year for some big break to get him back to New York, or Chicago, or any other of the reputable newspaper giants he has been fired from. When he learns of Leo’s tragic predicament his chagrined attitude quickly transforms into gleeful excitement. When questioned as to why he would celebrate such an awful event, Tatum says: “Bad news sells best, because good news is no news.”
This same mantra can be applied to Network, where bad news seems to be the only thing the executives are concerned with. Network centers around the exploits of four different members of a fictional fourth major television news network alongside ABC, NBC, and CBS, called UBS: the Union Broadcasting System. Howard Beale, a veteran news anchor played by Peter Finch, has just learned he is being fired for consistently poor ratings. Howard’s best friend and head of the news division, Max Schumacher, in a fantastic performance from William Holden, does his best to console Howard after giving him the terrible news, but cannot prevent him from threatening to kill himself on live television. What first seems to be a PR disaster at UBS gives them their highest ratings ever, prompting head of programming Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) and head of the network Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall) to exploit the attention-grabbing power of Howard’s lunacy to increase the ratings of the network.
While both films explore their themes through different mediums, they both centralize on the moral corruption of journalism and how it’s used to manipulate the masses. Ace in the Hole focuses solely on one man’s exploitation to profit, but the scale to which it escalates more than demonstrates the dangers of such power. Tatum first begins spinning the story by playing up the dramatic angle of it all. “Human interest” he calls it, and proceeds to tell his accompanying photographer the logic behind why this will make a compelling story.
“You pick up the paper, you read about 84 men or 284, or a million men, like in a Chinese famine. You read it, but it doesn’t stay with you. One man’s different, you want to know all about him. That’s human interest.”
Tatum begins to exaggerate parts of the story to better fit the narrative that will appeal to readers’ interests. Leo’s wife is painted as a desperately concerned lover, whereas in reality she is fairly indifferent to Leo and even attempts to leave him while he is stuck in the cave. Leo himself is painted as a courageous adventurer, trapped in the cave by evil Native American spirits, when he really is more of a buffoon who was messing around in a dangerous place he should have never been in. Tatum’s story begins to work its magic as crowds of people begin to flock more and more to the the tiny town of Escudero, New Mexico. Tatum and Leo’s wife team up to profit as much as possible from the surging interest of Leo’s fate, charging entry to see the cave, peddling hamburgers and kitschy souvenirs, and eventually bribing the local law enforcement to keep out other reporters so that Tatum’s scoop remains exclusive.
The event eventually balloons to an unbelievable size, sporting the ridiculous inclusion of a ferris wheel outside this rescue operation. The whole thing becomes a literal media circus, with Tatum as the contemptible ringmaster. Ace in the Hole reveals not only the level of debasement people are capable of for the sake of fame and fortune, but also the culpability of those who support these disingenuous reporters. Tatum’s continuous bending of the truth can only work because there is a precedent for an excited response to these types of sensationalist stories. The corruptive force of Tatum’s influence in Ace in the Hole confines itself to only a few accomplices by the end, but still demonstrates the destructive nature of this power. Network takes these morally compromised influencers to an even greater level by upgrading them to the level of studio executives.
The following night after Howard pledges to kill himself on live television, he is granted the opportunity to come back on one last time for a formal apology and sincere goodbye. His statement begins earnestly, but he quickly returns to making a mockery of the broadcast. He says that he just “ran out of bullshit” and proceeds to go on a tirade about the various “bullshits” of the world. Diana watches the aftermath of Howard’s negligent stunt and sees how much attention it is drawing to the network. The next day she approaches Hackett to put Howard back on the air and make a spectacle of his hysterical behavior. After a bit of convincing, Hackett excitedly agrees and proceeds to take it to the next level by pressuring the UBS executives to go along with this “pornographic network news show,” as they refer to it. Hackett calls UBS a “whorehouse network,” claiming they have to take anything they can get, even if it means doing away with any sense of morality or integrity.
Soon after, Howard claims to have seen a spirit in the midst of his sleep. The spirit claims that it will talk through Howard, spreading truth to millions of people by way of television. From here on out, Howard takes on the role of a delusional prophet, praised as some messianic force of truth. He goes on the air and preaches to the American audiences like some crazed televangelist, riling up the public to further drive ratings. The famous monologue Howard gives in the film perfectly embodies the ideals of sensationalized news. He instructs everyone to get “mad as hell” without any real call to action:
“I want you to get mad! I don’t want you to protest. I don’t want you to riot – I don’t want you to write to your congressman 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 Russians and the crime in the street. All I know is that first you’ve got to get mad!”
This is what the executives want out of their audience. Howard preaches about real issues, and the people’s anger is all too real, but they don’t want anything to actually happen. Diana says early in the film, “The American people want somebody to articulate their rage for them,” which is what these sensationalist programs are for. Audiences don’t flock to their television news anchors to be challenged or informed, they only wish for their own cemented ideals to be reaffirmed and praised, and the networks profiting off these complacent viewers are more than happy to oblige them.
In a later speech, after Howard’s show has been revitalized in the form of a kind of variety show, outfitted with psychics, and models, and a spotlight for the latest terrorist organization, Howard explains in great depth the manipulative power of television. Because it serves as entertainment first, audiences are conditioned to accept what they want to hear, even if it’s not inherently true. Because television is a business above all else, the networks will cater to whatever audiences’ respond to.
“The only truth you know is what you get over this tube. Right now, there is a whole, an entire generation that never knew anything that didn’t come out of this tube! This tube is the Gospel, the ultimate revelation. This tube can make or break presidents, popes, prime ministers… This tube is the most awesome God-damned force in the whole godless world… Television is not the truth! Television is a God-damned amusement park! Television is a circus, a carnival, a traveling troupe of acrobats, storytellers, dancers, singers, jugglers, side-show freaks, lion tamers, and football players!”
Individually, these two films explore the corrupt powers of sensationalized media in different ways. They both go even further to reveal the inherent gullibility of the readers and watchers, who empower these abusers by continuing to support their crooked practices. In both films the respective audiences have an overwhelmingly positive reaction to tragic and atrocious acts being committed. The people who flock to the New Mexico site in Ace in the Hole do so gleefully, and even brag about how long they’ve been there for. When people open their windows in Network to yell the words Howard Beale has instructed them to, they do so with a smile on their face.
People want tragedy, they want atrocities, they want sensationalized stories because it’s entertainment. They don’t care that people suffer at the hands of the media’s manipulation, as long as it gives them something to talk about around the water cooler the next day at work. Grand-scale exploitation of the news will continue to happen as long as there is an audience waiting to gobble-up whatever twisted story is fed to them. Ace in the Hole and Network are both fantastic films that exhibit malicious people profiting at the expense of others, but also unveil the sickly desires in us all that continue to propagate this madness.