The World of Howard Beale

RemingtonIn 1976, Americans were mad as hell.  And they didn’t want to take it anymore.

The fury, of course, was depicted in an iconic scene from the movie Network.  Before FOX constituted a legitimate fourth television network in the 1980s, the triad of CBS, ABC, and NBC governed the airwaves on a network level.

Network depicted UBS, a fictional fourth network.  Paddy Chayefsky’s script centers on Howard Beale, the UBS network news anchor disgusted with reading stories about mayhem, murder, and riots night after night.

During a broadcast, Beale exclaims, “I don’t have to tell you things are bad.  Everybody knows things are bad.  It’s a depression.  Everybody’s out of work or scared of losing their job.  The dollar buys a nickel’s worth, banks are going bust, shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter.  Punks are running wild in the street and there’s nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do, and there’s no end to it. We know the air is unfit to breathe and our food is unfit to eat, and we sit watching our TV’s while some local newscaster tells us that today we had fifteen homicides and sixty-three violent crimes, as if that’s the way it’s supposed to be.”

Beale continues his rant until he prompts the viewers to scream “I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore.”  Inspired, they shout out the windows.  In turn, Beale transforms himself into the Mad Prophet of the Airwaves, channeling people’s rage in The Network News Hour.  Peter Finch won a posthumous Oscar for his portrayal of Howard Beale.

During a broadcast of The Network News Hour, Beale admonishes the audience for its enslavement to television.  “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 right now.  Turn them off and leave them off!  Turn them off right int he middle of the sentence I’m speaking to you now!  Turn them off!”

Then, Beale promptly collapses.  This reaction, whether real or created for the purpose of entertainment, has become Beale’s trademark.

William Holden plays veteran newsman Max Schumacher, Beale’s best friend and producer.  He sees Beale’s transformation from respected television journalist to angry avatar representing the common man’s rage.  Complicating matters is Diana Christensen, the UBS programming chief who is having an affair with the married Schumacher.  She sees Beale’s anger as a potential boost for ratings.  And she’s right.  Faye Dunaway plays Christensen.

There is no scene involving Christensen and Beale, so it’s ambiguous whether Beale’s fury, while perhaps initially pure, received amplification under Christensen’s influence or remained pure throughout and Christensen simply took advantage of it.  Christensen has radical programming ideas, like building a reality show around a group of domestic terrorists who rob banks.  Ned Beatty plays Arthur Jensen, an executive with the parent company of UBS.  His monologue explains the financial realities of the world to Beale.  It is both jarring and revealing.  Robert Duvall plays a corporate sycophant, trying to maneuver his way to the good graces of Beatty’s character.

In his review of Network for Variety, A.D. Murphy wrote, “A scene in which the revolutionaries, network execs and their respective lawyers scream at each other over syndication fees and overhead charges is an example of how Chayefsky takes a good idea, pushes it relentlessly past discretion and through the barrier of intellectual credulity, making it so outrageous that it comes across as brilliant.”

Murphy adds, “Finch’s evangelical appeals to the frustrations of the viewing public in time cross Beatty’s stock-market merger plans.  But when Beatty himself emerges as an apostle of the multinational state, Finch is converted.  Yet ratings falter (people don’t like to be told they should surrender their humanity; they prefer the regular stroking garbage); Beatty won’t let Duvall cancel Finch; only one solution—kill Finch on the air, as a lead-in to the revolutionaries’ show.”

Network ends with Beale assassinated on his program and Lee Richardson’s narration:  “This was the story of Howard Beale, the first known instance of a man who was killed because he had lousy ratings.”

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