~By Norm Robins~
Howard Beale (Peter Finch) is a veteran news anchor on the evening news for UBS, the Union Broadcasting System, rated a pathetic fourth of four networks. His ratings have gone into the dumper along with UBS’s profit. He is fired for committing TV’s cardinal sin, low ratings. The news is given to him by the head of network news and longtime friend Max Schumacher (William Holden). Both are the face of TV from a prior day. Both are fossils. Beale snaps on that evening’s news broadcast. He announces on his show that next Tuesday he will commit suicide on live television. He is fired effective immediately. He pleads for one more show for old times’ sake so he can retire with dignity. His request is granted, but he uses his last hurrah to make things worse.
Diana Christiansen (Faye Dunaway) is an up and coming TV producer who foretells big ratings bumps in Beale’s madness. She is the new face of television. She convinces UBS to let her run a series of shows in the evening news slot with counterculture performers like a communist, a fortune teller, an urban terrorist, and headlining Howard Beale as the “angry prophet denouncing the hypocrisy of our times”.
This video clip is Beale giving his famous “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore” monologue. To this day 40+ years later this speech is iconic.
Beale is a hit, and ratings skyrocket. That is, until he uncovers and reports the news that UBS has been sold to a conglomerate that has in turn been sold to a private equity firm investing Arab petrodollars. He tells his now avid fans to write the White House and tell them to put the kibosh on the deal.
Bad move, Howard. This video clip shows Arthur Jensen (Ned Beatty), head of the conglomerate and custodian of the Arab petrodollars, lecturing Beale on the new world cosmology as he sees it. He enlists Beale to be his spokesman, to explain the new order of things to Beale’s audience. Beale, thinking God is talking to him, complies, and his ratings nosedive. Beale asks Jensen, “Why me?”. Jensen answers, “Because you are on television, Dummy.” Great truths are revealed in this video clip.
To continue their worship at the altar of the Great God Ratings, the network management decides to kill Beale. It’s the only way to appease a demanding and vengeful god Ratings. Two gunmen murder him on live TV. It is noted with clinical dispassion that this is a first for the industry.
There aren’t enough superlatives in my dictionary to describe cast and crew in this movie. The acting is universally not just great but superb. These are powerful, accomplished actors, all of them, and they show it in spades. This even describes Beatrice Straight who has a small part playing Max’s jilted wife of 25 years Louise. Louise is allegorically television from a prior day. Sidney Lumet’s directing is brilliant as is the cinematography. Even the editing is magnificent as is the lighting. Nothing in this film is not magnificent.
Paddy Chayefsky started his career in love with television as personified by the dignified but fallen Max Schumacher. Chayefsky wrote his early work Marty as a play, not for Broadway or Hollywood, but for television. But television has become in his words a whorehouse. It has changed profoundly personified by Diana Christensen. She, who is constantly obsessed with ratings, is the new face of it. This movie is Chayefsky’s powerful indictment of his once beloved television. Schumacher/Chayefsky have an October/May love affair with Christensen/1970s TV, but it is doomed from the start. Irreconcilable differences as they say in divorce courts. Max goes back to Louise/old-TV if she will have him.
Chayefsky has been indicted for writing too many monologues that are too long. I disagree. He had a command of the English language that was sublime. The two video clips above should convince anyone I’m right. Who could write such material today?
I tried getting this film on Amazon, but I was told it’s not available. Ditto for Fandango. I happened on a streaming service Redbox that worked fine and dandy. It was 3 bucks to see the film. It was worth so much more than that. This is a film for the ages.