Home Video Reviews
Peter Finch plays Howard Beale, has enjoyed his position as respected anchor for over two decades at the UBS station. But with the changing face of television news, Howard's ratings, and the downturn is too much too ignore. His boss is life long friend Max Schumacher (William Holden), and is the one who is given the dubious task of firing him, with the promise that he'll be allowed to finish out the next two nights on the air. But the next night when it gets to Beale's segment, he announces that he has been fired, and that one week from that night he's going to blow his brains out on the air. The network executives scramble to repair the situation, but Max is more concerned about Howard's well-being. Howard sounds perfectly lucid, so Max is stunned when Howard announces that he wants to go back on the air the next night. At first Max balks at the idea, but Howard is so compelling as he explains that he wants to go back on the air and apologize, and to say his final farewells with dignity.
But once he's in front of the camera again he begins another profanity-laced diatribe against the ills of the world. When he begins his rant the producer orders the crew to pull him off the air, but Max overrides him and leaves Beale on the air. This decision brings the executives down on Max as they try to lay the blame for the entire situation at his door. But then the ratings come in, and the execs discover that their mentally deteriorating anchor man is making the ratings rise rapidly.
As the news division grapples with the problem of Beale and the tiger they have by the tail, network programmer Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) has managed to snag a programming coup: she has the inside track on a new terrorist group called the Ecumenical Liberation Army. The group actually films themselves when committing atrocities and sends the films into the news. Diana has the radical idea of taking each new tape, opening a show with it and then telling the story (fictional or otherwise) behind it. Her ongoing negotiations with the terrorists move to the back burner, though, when she becomes aware of the ratings potential of the Howard Beale situation. So she crosses the line between the programming department and the news division, going directly to Max. Striking a partnership and love affair at the same time, Diana starts working on making Howard Beale and the news, which is quickly becoming not only the center of the news by the center of the networks' programming, and turning it into the network's first number one show. She gets her first indication that her efforts are working when Beale goes into his most pointed diatribe yet: he tells his ever-rising tide of viewers that he wants them to go to their windows, fling them open, lean out and yell, "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it any more." When the UBS switchboards lights up and Diana gets call from all across the country informing her that people are actually following Beale's direction, she knows she has a mega hit on her hands.
When Max proves reluctant to go any further with the Howard Beale situation, he is gleefully fired by network exec Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall), and cut loose from UBS (and Diana and the same time). Diana is given carte blanche to take Beale as far as he can go, and he is quickly moved into "The Howard Beale Show," in which he's introduced as "the mad prophet of the airwaves", by an announcer who has the live audience yell his signature phrase at the beginning of the show. Against a background of stained glass windows Beale is set free every night to rant about anything he wants to tackle..
Network burst onto the scene in 1976 like a freak storm that took audiences by the shoulders and tried to shake the complacency out of them. Thirty years later it seems just as fresh and timely as when it was released. None of the bite has been taken out of it. The points that Chayefsky was trying to make are still frighteningly timely, and the new special edition DVD is being released at a time that makes it unexpectedly pointed, as the nation debates the sale of American shipping docks to Arab countries. As Chayefsky predicted, the move to shrink-wrapped, prepackaged news has become the norm, with networks unable to see that the more entertainment content they cover, the more boring the news becomes.
The film is filled wall-to-wall with flawless performances, beginning with Finch, who won a posthumous Oscar® for his work. Finch gives a carefully modulated performance that beautifully portrays a man's descent into madness. Faye Dunaway picked also picked up an Oscar® for her performance as Diana, a programmer so ruthless she would eat her own young to get ratings. There is a scene near the end of the film where Max tells her exactly what he thinks she is. As he talks, the camera focuses on her, and she literally empties herself until her body is a shell. It is an amazing performance that went beyond Oscar® worthiness. Beatrice Straight took home the film's third acting honor (virtually for one lengthy scene) for her portrayal of Max's wife who faces his announcement that he's in love with Diana, and decides not to take it lying down. Holden also was nominated for an Oscar®, and deservedly so: his performance is carefully layered and his tired eyes and world-weariness speaks of a lifetime of trying to ride waves without getting wet.
The two disc special edition has been given an above-par transfer from excellent source material. The all-important contrast is pretty spectacular given the dark settings. The image remains very clear throughout the movie, and the shadow detail is excellent. The disc includes a new, lengthy "making of" documentary, as well as a vintage interview from the talk show Dinah!, hosted by Dinah Shore. The real treasure is an hour-long one-on-one interview with director Sidney Lumet, hosted by TCM's Robert Osborne.
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by Fred Hunter