Peter Finch (who won a posthumous Oscar for this role) plays Howard Beale, a news anchor, who upon being told that he is being fired due to low ratings, has an on air-breakdown where he says that he will kill himself live on tv the following week. He is given a chance by his bosses to redeem himself and make a live apology, but when he is due to do so, he simply says – again on-air – that he is sick of “bullshit.”
The tv company’s immediate reaction is to fire him, but his friend Max Schumacher, who sympathises with Beale, keeps him on and Beale eventually ends up with his own show, where he is known as the Mad Prophet. In his show, he rants about America, about corporate lies and life in general, and the ratings go through the roof…but the television network will only look after Beale for as long as he is a valuable commodity to them…
This film was made in the 1970s, but it is just as relevant, if not more so, in today’s world. It perfectly portrays the exploitation that we see in so much television today. For instance, it is clear that Beale is suffering from some form of mental illness (he starts to have visions and hear voices talking to him), yet nobody at the network is interested in helping him; in fact, helping him is the last thing they want to do, as his shows will not work if he is totally in his right mind. We see much the same thing in shows today like Big Brother, where people are put on screen simply to be laughed at or gawped at, however cruel this may be. And think how many people are shown in the audition stages of X Factor, simply to be laughed at (as an aside, it’s worth remembering that the people who get to audition on tv in X Factor have already been through three auditions before they get to be in front of the four main judges. It is clear that some of them are put through purely to be humiliated). This film understood and showed all of that happening.
In another storyline, ambitious tv producer Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) gives a gang of terrorists their own television show, on the basis that they film their crimes as they commit them. In one of my favourite scenes, a bunch of tv executives are sitting around discussing contracts and terms with the terrorist group. This gang are killing and robbing, but hey – who cares as long as they give good ratings, right? Robert Duvall is excellent, as always, as Christensen’s boss Frank Hackett. Hackett is heartless and cares for nobody except himself.
All in all, this is an entertaining and very relevant film. Highly recommended.
Year of release: 1976
Director: Sidney Lumet
Writer: Paddy Chayefsky
Main cast: Peter Finch, William Holden, Robert Duvall, Faye Dunaway