Contrary to popular belief, my personal top 10 list of movies doesn’t consist solely of John Landis comedies and Star Trek! There are actually a couple of real honest to God dramas on the list and Sidney Lumet’s classic media satire is one of them. Many consider the film ahead of its time, which is both a testament to the filmmakers and a sad comment on society today. (Though I’m as guilty as anyone else.)
After learning that he only has two more weeks on the air due to low ratings, UBS news anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch) says he’s going to kill himself live on television. He’s subsequently fired but his friend Max Schumacher (William Holden), head of the news division, convinces the network brass to allow Beale a dignified exit. Back on the air, Beale goes into a fit, describing life as “bulls---,” and has to be dragged off the set. Naturally, this causes a spike in ratings and the brass decide to keep him on. This culminates in his famous “I’m as mad as Hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” speech. Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway), head of entertainment, manages to convince network exec Frank Hackett (Robert Duval) to slot the evening news under her division so she can develop it with Schumacher, with whom she begins an affair. She also develops a docudrama series featuring a radical terrorist group, the Ecumenical Liberation Army (a parody of the Symbionese Liberation Army).
What Draws Me to This Film
I was originally hesitant to review this film. It’s a bit above my pay grade! Sidney Lumet? He directed movies for adults! Paddy Chayefsky? He was a genius satirist! The characters in this movie use ten-cent words like “encroachment”! But here we are.
I absolutely love Beatty’s speech later in the film. It’s a force of nature and the scene is lit and shot in such a way that suggests Beatty’s character might be a higher power of some kind.
For anyone who’s interested in filmmaking (or knows anyone who’s interested), I highly recommend Sidney Lumet’s book Making Movies. Lumet was never really known for any kind of visual style (i.e. he never wanted the audience to notice) but for this film, he and acclaimed cinematographer Owen Roizman (The French Connection, The Exorcist) decided that since the film was about corruption, they would “corrupt” the camera. The film is lit in a naturalistic style, and then gradually the lighting becomes more and more artificial until it looks like a commercial. The newscasts were shot in a real newsroom and look convincing, though I still can’t believe how primitive on-screen graphics looked back then.
This guy charts it better than I can: the typical news story lifecycle, complete with requisite outrage, outrage about the outrage, and reactions from politicians who have nothing to do with the story. (Paging Arahsay Alinpay.) Such is life in these United States. In the end, we can only hope that some kind of sea change occurs and that the intelligent and thoughtful will ultimately rise above the bloviation and hate. Sadly, there’s no money in it. And yes, the problem lies on both sides. It’s why, even as a moderate Independent, I can appreciate a conservative website like, say, Commentarama or The Federalist and decry the psycho ward that is Breitbart. And no, George Soros didn’t pay me to say that!
In his fiery speeches, Beale praised the strength of the individual and lamented what he saw as our collective dehumanization. But there’s another problem: our lack of discernment – when everything is important or revolutionary or offensive, then nothing is!
I hope we’re not too late.
“After living with you for the last six months, I'm turning into one of your scripts. Well, this is not a script, Diana. There's some real, actual life going on here.”