Release Date: November 27th, 1976 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Sidney Lumet Actors: Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Peter Finch, Robert Duvall, Ned Beatty, Wesley Addy, Arthur Burghardt
he unseen narrator (William Holden) states that this film is about Howard Beale (Peter Finch), an 11-year veteran anchor of the UBS television station, whose lucrative, healthy career of fame and recognition began to decline in 1969, followed a year later by his wife’s death and a steady drop in viewership. By 1975, he’s fired, effective in two weeks. He joins the news division president Max Schumacher (Holden), his best friend, to gripe at a bar, wherein Howard resigns to the notion of killing himself. The following day, on the show, he announces his forced retirement due to poor ratings and exclaims that in one week’s time, he’ll blow his brains out on live TV. In a scene that is perhaps most representative of the movie’s purpose as a whole, the dozen employees going through the motions of routine monitoring and technical engineering barely notice the outrageous recitation.
Parent company conglomerate CCA sends hatchetman Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall) to straighten out the media debacle, as they’re concerned with an upcoming stockholder meeting and the continual multi-million-dollar deficit the news division keeps generating. When Beale negotiates for one final, professional farewell, he starts up another embarrassing rant that is intentionally left unquelled by Max, who is infuriated by a recent secreted intention to reorganize management and despoil the division. Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway), head of programming, recognizes the sudden, fortuitous appeal of a madman articulating popular rage on a national television network and begs Frank to consider putting Beale back on the air.
Craziness is what the public wants. Spontaneous anger is thrilling and a manufactured prophet (or truly insane person) might be the remedy. And networks will do anything for ratings. Such criticisms of the American people and the corrupted delivery of information are sensationally harnessed with corporate maneuverings, backstabbing, artificial veneration, greed, indifference to human wellbeing, the power of having an audience and a medium for propaganda, and the ultimate admittance of a truthful basis for the lack of facts (illusions!) spurted from the tube.
This acrimonious attack on confused reality and politically fueled, heavily biased information was far ahead of its time and still rings true today. Despite the setting in the ‘70s when the American people were becoming increasingly sullen, thanks to bombardment of constantly negative news – such as oil prices, the revolutionary underground, Patty Hearst, kidnappings, Vietnam, Watergate, political terrorism, and much more – almost nothing about the film has aged (Howard and Max ironically joke of suicides, assassinations, hitmen, and terrorists composing “The Death Hour” as a winning show idea, paralleling the reality that the news is already comprised of exactly those stories). The pacing slows occasionally from a preoccupation with litigious notions, board meetings, determination of values, and contract negotiations – perhaps exacerbated by the extremely intelligent script that is, in alternation, deliciously sardonic and depressingly sobering, with rapid-fire dialogue that congests every cynical exchange – all with obvious wordiness.
There’s also a doomed love story in the mix, aided by a cast of phenomenal performers. Duvall is excellent (yet one of the only participants not nominated for an Academy Award for acting), throwing around his boisterous tantrums; Finch’s spectacularly quotable monologue (a rousing, repetitious rant like something out of “Spartacus”) has become a part of cinema history; and Dunaway and Holden exhibit enthusiastic authenticity for their bitter, largely unlikeable lovers. The entire cast is essentially a collection of contemptible souls, foreshadowed by the monotonic, morose voice of the narrator, coldly rattling off statistics on Beale’s career. In the end, while it’s a satirical look at what intrigues viewers (as if a version of “Death Race 2000” for the intelligentsia), which concurrently condemns television itself (and its ability to shape human life), it’s also a Frankenstein’s monster tragedy in which the demand for financial safety warrants the destruction of a created product.
– Mike Massie