Director: Sidney Lumet
Written By: Paddy Chayefsky
Actors: Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Peter Finch, Robert Duvall, Ned Beatty
Run Time: 121 min
"You're never going to get any truth from us. We'll tell you anything you want to hear; we lie like hell. We'll tell you that, uh, Kojak always gets the killer, or that nobody ever gets cancer at Archie Bunker's house, and no matter how much trouble the hero is in, don't worry, just look at your watch; at the end of the hour he's going to win. We'll tell you any shit you want to hear. We deal in *illusions*, man! None of it is true! But you people sit there, day after day, night after night, all ages, colors, creeds... We're all you know. You're beginning to believe the illusions we're spinning here. You're beginning to think that the tube is reality, and that your own lives are unreal. You do whatever the tube tells you! You dress like the tube, you eat like the tube, you raise your children like the tube, you even *think* like the tube! This is mass madness, you maniacs! In God's name, you people are the real thing! *WE* are the illusion! So turn off your television sets. Turn them off now. Turn them off and leave them off!"
This quote is what I take most from this film. It's one of the final statements that Howard Beale makes in the film, and I found it quite powerful. It's no secret that the world is more or less run by the media these days, and that television (and nowadays, the internet) controls all of it. What surprised me though was that the same issues about media, religion, country, and just blatant human decency that we complain about today, were still clear issues back in the 1970's. I show my age here, I suppose, but that's not much of a secret; and I'm sure that just about anyone who's reading this is similar in age to me, if not younger. But I was born in the mid-1980's, and I have no knowledge of what decades before truly held. I've seen plenty of video, movies, pictures, etc., but with this film, for the first time really in my whole life, I felt somewhat connected to the era; it stunned me that such similar agendas were around even in the earlier days of mass media.
The film revolves around a television station, UBS, consistently at the bottom of program ratings. The company, in the middle of a giant corporate takeover, must find ways to get its ratings up or the whole television department might be axed. Conveniently, Howard Beale (Peter Finch), a long-time evening news anchor for the company who's just got word that they're giving him the boot for fresh blood, decides to announce to the world that on tomorrow night's show he's going to kill himself. For the world to see. The station shuts him down, scrambles to figure out contingencies for the press, but like a Christmas miracle, ratings pour in, and though depressing and sickening, people take an interest in Beale. The station lets him go back on the air (promising not to kill himself), and rant about whatever pisses him off. His comments are usually off-color and not politically correct, but he's a hit, so the world and the station praises him. That is, as long as he can keep his ratings up.
Going on throughout all of this there are various characters trying to weigh in on all of this, and squirm their way to the top of the ladder. His longtime friend and colleague, Max (William Holden), hates the whole thing and thinks they're parading Beale around like a wild animal. He's slowly kicked to the curb for not being able to get on board with everything, but his overall morals appeal to most at the station, even if they don't want to admit it or give into them. His biggest difficulty is new television coordinator, Diana (Faye Dunaway), who's now in charge of the news division. With her bold ideas and obsessions to the field, she proves that she'll do anything for ratings. There are also a couple of great showings by Robert Duvall as Frank Hackett, the new executive for the company buying up UBS, and Ned Beatty as Arthur Jensen, the CEO over Hackett. He doesn't get much screen time, but what he gets is powerful. Both are behind Diana, and willing to do anything necessary to be on top.
Off the bat, it's easy to see why so many look at this film as a classic. The themes they're using are all powerful and meaningful. While sometimes coming off as a bit too extreme for its own good, it still has a very clear message, and doesn't fail to deliver it. The humor is quite dry, but I'm okay with that here. At just over two hours though, I feel like that's the film's biggest weakness. It's so dry and moves so slowly, that even with these inspired characters, it takes a little too long to get to its conclusions.
The overall writing feels pretty strong, with various characters coming through rather clearly. I tend to side mostly with Max throughout the whole film (probably the character you're supposed to side with), and I feel awful for Howard. I don't think he cares, and he'd been on television so long that he doesn't care what he's doing as long as he's there. But you feel bad to see so many people taking advantage of him and using him for their personal gains, without a thought or care about his own feelings. It's a bleak and pessimistic look into this world, but it's that blatant disregard for emotion that drives the film, and makes the entire film feel fairly honest.
The film is, I think, a brilliant concept that proves as accurate today as it did 35 years ago. It's a reminder of how corrupt the media industry is as a whole, and how people are really meaningless cogs in the whole system. This doesn't represent all facets of course, but it more or less generalizes the entire structure, showcasing the worst of the worst; they use you up until they don't need you anymore, and before you're out the door, there's someone that's a little bit better and a little bit newer than you are, ready to jump right in. It's a vicious cycle that constantly perpetuates itself. This movie probably takes a look at everything in a much harsher tone than I hope is generally considered realistic, but even so, nothing in this movie really caught me as completely unbelievable, even the film's iniquitous finale.
Overall, it's a slow-moving movie, so tread with caution. I did enjoy the film, but might appreciate it in concept more than actual entertainment when all is said and done. There are some powerful speeches throughout though, and even some great contrasting character personalities that are entertaining to see unfold. There are a few chuckles to be had, but it's definitely more of a dark satire than anything you'd consider a comedy. The climax hits pretty powerfully (I don't want to believe the nonchalant attitudes in that room at the end, but it also didn't surprise me much; these were terrible people willing to do anything for money and power), and is worth the watch for that aspect alone, even if it takes a little longer than I'd hope to get there.