Cast: Faye Dunaway (Diana Christensen), William Holden (Max Schumacher), Peter Finch (Howard Beale), Robert Duvall (Frank Hackett), Wesley Addy (Nelson Chaney), Ned Beatty (Arthur Jensen), Beatrice Straight (Louise Schumacher)
Director: Sidney Lumet
My rating: 9 / 10
Set at the struggling Union Broadcasting System (UBS) American network station which is currently running last in the ratings out of four networks, we witness the fall of lead news anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch).
Due to declining ratings the network fires Howard giving him two weeks notice at which point Howard announces on air that he will blow out his brains on the news in one week’s time. The network brass is initially incensed and pulls him off the air effective immediately, but Howard pleads for one final telecast so that he can exit from news broadcasting with dignity and with the support of his friend Max Schumacher (William Holden) the head of the news division is is allowed back on the air.
During the broadcast however Howard speaks candidly, emotionally and profanely about what he is feeling, Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway), the new and ambitious vice-president in charge of programming, thinks that Howard is the panacea to all the network’s rating problems and convinces the network to let her try to improve the networks performance overall using Howard and also other more extreme programming in particular following a terrorist group.
Despite their differences in views, Max and Diana begin a romance, which plays on Max’s conscience as a faithful married man for twenty-five years and which Diana always refers to, as she does everything in life, in terms of a television show plot outline. Despite their affair Diana actively undercuts Max. When Max decides to end Howard’s “angry man” format, Diana convinces her boss, Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall), to slot the evening news show under the entertainment programming division so she can develop it and results in Max being fired.
This leads to Howard hosting a new program called The Howard Beale Show, top-billed as “the mad prophet of the airwaves” which becomes the most highly rated program on television making UBS the number one network. Howard find enormous fame with his catchphrase “We’re as mad as hell, and we’re not going to take this anymore.”
When Howard learns that the America mega company that owns UBS is going to be bought out by a larger Saudi Arabian company will protests on the air and asked the audience to write to the White House to get it stop. This leads company chairman Arthur Jensen (Ned Beatty) to meet with Howard and explain how international corporations work, scaring Howard into Arthur’s beliefs.
This leads Howard abandon the populist messages of the past and start using preaching Arthur’s views of the world. The audience ratings start declining quickly with this new approach. Diana seeing an opportunity to cross promote her new terrorist show convinces the other network executives to let her terrorist group to assassinate Howard live on the air which they do.
The movie ends with a voiceover that proclaims this as“the story of Howard Beale, the first known instance of a man who was killed because he had lousy ratings.”
What’s to Like
The examination of what occurs to television journalism where entertainment is put first and the associated short-term ratings, the power plays and greed of corporate executives without morals, the descent into madness of a formerly ethical news anchor.
What’s not to Like
How easily the ethical News Division Head Max Schumacher falls for the unethical Entertainment Division Vice President Diana Christensen and for how long the affair continues seems to far out of character for Max.
This is a dark film at it’s heart. The hopelessness of a news anchor past his prime ready to commit suicide and as he becomes more mentally unstable how unethical greedy people take advantage of his condition. In many ways to see what could and sadly does, occur when morals are either never present or disregarded.
The worse part of this 1976 film is that the merging of entertainment and news has actually occurred in reality. Certainly not to the extent of what occurs in this film but it has occurred. Less careful consideration more yelling or bully for entertainment not informative reasons.
The film shows that high level success can excuse other behaviours. The cheering affiliate channel representatives leads to the push to exploit domestic terrorism to push counter programming further. Ultimately the film highlights that their might be no end to the descent people will take once morals, ethics and humanity are no longer present.
A cautionary tale that has been ignored. This film is many things; enjoyable, informative, funny (at times) but especially disheartening as you suspect our human nature could easily lead down this path of misery. The actors bring their A games which is highlighted by so many of them being Academy Award nominee or winners in their respective categories.
- Best Actor in a Leading Role (Peter Finch) – winner
- Best Actress in a Leading Role (Faye Dunaway) – winner
- Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Beatrice Straight) – winner
- Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen (Paddy Chayefsky) – winner
- Best Picture – nominee
- Best Actor in a Leading Role (William Holden) – nominee
- Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Ned Beatty) – nominee
- Best Director (Sidney Lumet) – nominee
- Best Cinematography (Owen Roizman) – nominee
- Best Film Editing (Alan Heim) – nominee