is a 1976 American film, written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Sidney Lumet
, that might just scare the living daylights out of you and make you stare at a wall for ten minutes. It is a harsh, satirical critique of (among other things) television and the short-attention-span culture over which it presides, the media in general
and its shameless pandering to the Lowest Common Denominator
, the giant conglomerates that have homogenized American entertainment, and the executives who treat the nightly news as a profit center instead of a public service.
The film's main story centers around Howard Beale (Peter Finch), an evening news anchor at struggling TV network Union Broadcasting System, or UBS. After being given two weeks notice that he is being laid off, Beale announces on live TV that he is going to kill himself. UBS fires him immediately, but Max Schumacher (William Holden), the head of the news department and Beale's best friend, protests; the network ultimately decides to give Beale one last broadcast, presumably so he can have a dignified farewell. Beale takes this opportunity and runs with it by launching into an on-air rant about how life is "bullshit" — which causes his ratings to skyrocket, prompting UBS to immediately renew his contract. During a subsequent broadcast, Beale preaches to his audience with the now-famous line "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!", which soon becomes his mantra
. UBS turns Beale's news program into a live talk show, with segments on gossip, astrology, and opinion polls — with Beale billed as the "mad prophet of the airwaves."
In the meantime, ambitious UBS programming executive Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) decides to capitalize on Beale's success, convincing ruthless network president Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall) to merge the news and entertainment divisions so that she can manage Beale's show and create a new program, The Mao Tse-Tung Hour
, aimed at the new audience that Beale is bringing in. She also enters a relationship with Schumacher, who must choose
between her and his wife Louise (Beatrice Straight). Things get even more complicated when Beale delivers an on-air rant against an imminent deal to merge UBS' corporate parent with a Saudi Arabian conglomerate, which draws the attention of quasi-messianic company chairman Arthur Jensen (Ned Beatty).
If you're searching for information on the various companies that broadcast television, see Networks
This film provides examples of:
- Adored by the Network: In-universe, Arthur Jensen forbids UBS from firing or taking Beale off the air after Beale starts preaching Jensen's ideology even though it's causing the network to have bad ratings.
- All Psychology Is Freudian: Diana mentions having seen a psychoanalyst for seven years and as a result, now has a father complex.
- Answers to the Name of God: Implied by Jensen at the end of his rant/sermon.
Beale: I have seen the face of God.
Jensen: You just might be right, Mr. Beale.
- Anti-Hero: All three of the leads. Howard Beale is a shining example of a Classical Anti-Hero.
- Arc Words: "Fifty share" (talking about ratings), "mad as hell", etc.
- Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking:
: You had less than a minute of hard national and international news. It was all sex, scandal, brutal crime, sports, children with incurable diseases
, and lost puppies.
- Bad Boss: Hackett. How bad is he? He orders Beale assassinated because his ratings aren't high enough.
- Betty and Veronica: For Max, his wife vs. Diana.
- Black Comedy: For all its effective dramatic scenes, this is a brutally hilarious satire of the media that grows more prescient by the year.
- Brick Joke: "What are we going to call it, The Mao Tse-Tung Hour?"
- As a subtle Call Back: Max tells Howard a hilarious story about jumping out of bed, throwing his raincoat over his pajamas and rushing to report on a bridge. Guess what Howard Beale wears when he delivers his famous speech?
- When Hackett fires Max, Max claims that Hackett will be fired in turn by Arthur Jensen for Howard Beale's outbursts. But Hackett argues that it would be stupid of Jensen to fire him over the only show that's getting good ratings on the network, and asserts that Jensen would tell him, "That's very good, Frank. Keep it up." Sure enough, after Hackett delivers his ratings report during a meeting later in the film, Jensen tells him, "Very good, Frank. Exemplary. Keep it up."
- Bunny-Ears Lawyer: Howard after getting fired, so much. He delivers the news in his pajamas.
- Character Filibuster: Every main character gets at least one, and most of Beale's appearances on TV are to deliver filibusters.
- Chekhov's Gunman: The Ecumenical Liberation Front. Literally.
- Chewing the Scenery: Beatrice Straight's Oscar-winning five minutes and 40 seconds of screentime.
- Cool Old Guy: The president of the network, until he's replaced by Hackett.
- Corrupt Corporate Executive: Frank Hackett couldn't care less about the condition of Howard Beale (or anyone else) as long as the ratings keep coming in. When Diana is asked whether she and Hackett are having an affair, she laughs it off with, "Frank Hackett has no loves, lusts or allegiances that are not directly related to becoming a CCA board member. I'm not even a stockholder."
- Crapsack World
- Deadline News: Beale threatens to kill himself during a live news broadcast. Later, the network executives have Beale assassinated on-air since his ratings are declining and the chairman refuses to cancel his show.
- Downer Ending: "This was the story of Howard Beale, the first known instance of a man who was killed because he had lousy ratings."
- Dramatic Thunder: During the "I'm mad as hell" scene.
- Driven to Suicide: Howard, almost.
"I would like at this moment to announce that I will be retiring from this program in two weeks time because of poor ratings. Since this show is the only thing I had going for me in my life, I've decided to kill myself. I'm going to blow my brains out right on this program a week from today. So tune in next Tuesday. That should give the public relations people a week to promote the show. You ought to get a hell of a rating out of that. Fifty share, easy."
- Dysfunction Junction: Every single character in this film is screwed up in their own way.
- Eagleland: One of the most nihilistic Type Twos ever seen:
Jensen: There is no America. There is no democracy. There is only IBM and ITT and AT&T and Du Pont, Dow, Union Carbide and Exxon.
- Emotionless Girl: Diana, in Max's opinion. See "The Reason You Suck" Speech.
- Evil Is Hammy: Arthur Jensen.
- Executive Meddling: An in-universe example. Jensen convinces Beale to drop his fiery populist message due to the fact that he's railing against a merger of CCA (the corporation that owns UBS) with a Saudi Arabian conglomerate — a merger that the deeply-in-debt UBS needs to stay afloat.
- All he really does is explain his own philosophy in terms Beale instantly accepts. The message is still just as fiery, he just switches sides.
- Freak Out / Sanity Slippage: Beale's basically having a nervous breakdown on Live television. Instead of getting him the help he needs, his bosses encourage it, and he eventually goes completely Coo-Coo.
- Foreshadowing: In the first five minutes Beale and Schumacher joke about putting murders, suicides and terrorists on the air.
- Grand Inquisitor Scene: The confrontation between Howard Beale and Arthur Jensen.
- Grumpy Old Man: Beale.
- Happily Married: Max, although it takes him until the end of the film to realize it.
- The Hero Dies
- He Who Fights Monsters: Laureen Hobbes, though she despises capitalist organizations, agrees to work with UBS to spread the communist message and get money for the party. By the end of the film, her group has become so intertwined with the network that it's hard to tell the two apart.
- Hypocrisy Nod: Beale criticizes television while on television. At the end of his speech, he orders his viewers to turn their television sets off.
- Ice Queen: Diana.
- Karma Houdini: The entire successful conspiracy to murder Howard Beale. We don't even get any assurance that the people who actually kill Howard get caught.
- Large Ham: Almost every main character, with Peter Finch's Howard Beale being the mightiest of them all.
- Leaning on the Fourth Wall: Max says that the younger woman he's having an affair with can only relate to reality through television. She imagines their affair as a drama/tragedy, but he doesn't know if she expects a happy ending where he returns to his wife or not. He says all this in a conversation with his wife two-thirds of the way through the movie, which he refers to as the second act of a drama.
- Love Triangle: Diana/Max/Louise.
- Lowest Common Denominator: In-universe, this is the target audience of UBS after Beale's news show becomes a hit.
- Network Decay: What eventually occurs (the ratings are high, but the quality...).
- Manipulative Bitch: Diana.
- May-December Romance: Between Diana and Max.
- Memetic Mutation: Happens In-Universe to Beale's "mad as Hell" speech, as people all over the world take up the cry. It's such a famous scene, it's become susceptible to Memetic Mutation in Real Life as well.
- Misaimed Fandom: An In-Universe example. While Howard is sympathetic, it's pretty clear that he's having a mental breakdown during his "mad as hell" speech. The movie then goes on to show why network television empowering and commercializing his populist rage is a bad thing. Keep that in mind the next time you hear a pundit on network television saying they're "mad as hell".
- Money, Dear Boy: The only reason anyone does anything at UBS is for ratings, including keeping Howard on the air at all, and then killing him.
- My God, You Are Serious: Max's (verbatim) reaction after Diana shares her ideas for "improving" the news broadcasts.
- Newhart Phonecall: There are a few in the film, but perhaps the most dramatic one is when a furious Arthur Jensen calls Frank Hackett after the broadcast where Howard Beale tells the public to send protest letters to the White House over the middle east deal. We only hear Frank's side of the conversation, which mostly consists of "take it easy!" and such.
- Newscaster Cameo: CBS's Walter Cronkite, NBC's John Chancellor, and ABC's Howard K. Smith are all shown on TV monitors (via stock footage) along with Howard Beale during the opening narration.
- N-Word Privileges:
Diana: Hi. I'm Diana Christensen, a racist lackey of the imperialist ruling circles.
Laureen: I'm Laureen Hobbs, a badass commie nigger.
- No Celebrities Were Harmed: Mary Anne Gifford and her captors, the Ecumenical Liberation Army, bear a suspicious resemblance to Patty Hearst and her kidnappers, the Symbionese Liberation Army. Similarly, Laureen Hobbs stands in for '70s communist firebrand Angela Davis.
- Diana is rumored to be based on a television exec at the time who obsessed over ratings every minute of the day.
- Howard Beale's threatened on-air suicide was inspired by Christine Chubbuck's real one.
- Not-So-Badass Longcoat: Howard's trench coat.
- Not So Different: According to Jensen, there is no difference between America and any other nation: they all care about money.
"We no longer live in a world of nations and ideologies, Mr. Beale. The world is a college of corporations, inexorably determined by the immutable bylaws of business."
- When Diane first approaches Schumacher about her ideas to add more showbiz to the news and he balks, she gives him a version of this.
"I watched your six o'clock news today; it's straight tabloid. You had a minute and a half of that lady riding a bike naked in Central Park; on the other hand, you had less than a minute of hard national and international news. It was all sex, scandal, brutal crime, sports, children with incurable diseases, and lost puppies. So, I don't think I'll listen to any protestations of high standards of journalism when you're right down on the streets soliciting audiences like the rest of us."
- Oh, Crap: Hackett gives a delicious one when he learns Beale lambastsed the Arab deal on the air.
- One-Liner Echo: See Memetic Mutation.
- Only in It for the Money: After beginning the movie as a dyed-in-the-wool communist, Laureen Hobbs has become this by the end.
- It's a strange example, because she's still a communist, but Diana convinces her that she can only advance her cause by gaining money and influence, which requires working with the network. And once she starts compromising with the corporate agenda, it tends to take over everything.
- Only Sane Man: Schumacher to a degree, as even though he too is a flawed character he's one of the only people to recognize Beale's descent into madness and call out the network's exploitation of it.
- Pompous Political Pundit: Beale is a more heroic example than most, though he's still quite pompous and arguably insane. His politics are also less explicitly left- or right-wing, instead being a broader "mad as hell" populism.
- Precision F-Strike:
Secretary: Mr. Hackett's trying to get through to you.
Max: Tell Mr. Hackett to go fuck himself.
- Rant Inducing Slight: For Beale, getting fired. Emphasis on the word "rant".
- Reality Show: The Mao Tse-Tung Hour, a show chronicling the exploits of a group of leftist domestic terrorists. One can argue that the film itself predicted the rise of the genre over two decades in advance.
- "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Schumacher gives Diana one of these when he breaks up with her.
Schumacher: You're television incarnate, Diana. Indifferent to suffering. Insensitive to joy. All of life is reduced to the common rubble of banality. War, murder, death. All the same to you as bottles of beer. And the daily business of life is a corrupt comedy. You even shatter the sensations of time and space into split seconds and instant replays. You're madness, Diana. Virulent madness. And everything you touch dies with you.
- Louise delivers one to Max when he tells her about his ongoing affair with Diana. She rips him to pieces over his infidelity, but makes it clear that she still loves him. Max is obviously deeply wounded by her reaction.
- Refuge in Audacity: Seemingly the entire raison d'etre of UBS' programming under Diana Christensen.
- Resignations Not Accepted: Howard tries to quit his job more than once, but he's not allowed to for various reasons. Until the network decides to kill him.
- Running Gag: The scene in Diana's office where they're reading submitted pitches for television shows. You'll lose count of the times that characters are said to be either "brilliant", "beautiful" and "crusty but benign". Truth in Television, anyone?
- Sanity Slippage: Howard starts losing his sanity, which the network cruelly exploits.
- Scary Black Man: The Great Ahmed Khan. Subverted in that he portrays himself as a criminal mastermind, but when he appears onscreen in person he's eating fried chicken and seems kind of dimwitted.
- Or at least very laid-back, even during the big argument in the contract discussion, where he quietly pulls out a gun and fires into the air to shut everybody up, then calmly says "Give her the fucking overhead clause. Let's get to page twenty-two, 5(a), subsidiary rights...."
- Screwed by the Network: The executives have Beale killed due to his show's declining ratings. And you thought FOX was bad.
- Screw Politeness Im A Senior: Howard Beale, all the way.
Doorman: Good afternoon, Mr. Beale.
Howard: I must make my witness!
Doorman: Sure thing, Mr. Beale.
- Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness
- Silly Rabbit, Idealism Is for Kids!: Plated deadly straight (as befits a film this cynical):
Nelson: Well, I don't want any part of it. I don't fancy myself the president of a whorehouse.
Hackett: That's very commendable of you, Nelson. Now sit down. Your indignation is duly noted; you can always resign tomorrow.
- The Sociopath: Considering it deals with network executives quite a few characters qualify, but none moreso than Diana.
- Strawman News Media: Of the vapid/lurid variety, later degenerating into outright corporate-controlled content when Jensen silences Beale's criticism of his corporation's merger with a Saudi conglomerate.
- Supporting Protagonist: Max Schumacher in the second half. Though Howard's actions drive the plot, most of the second half is told from Max's perspective.
- Terrorists Without a Cause: The Ecumenical Liberation Front.
- There Are No Good Executives: Nearly all of them are portrayed as greedy, amoral bastards except Chaney, who seems to be a decent guy but stopped trying to fight the corruption simply because he knows he can't win.
- There Are No Therapists: For Howard, at least. Max says that he needs "care and treatment" but the network executives prevent it because they don't want lose their hit show.
- This Is Reality: Max reminds Diana that this isn't one of her television drama scripts, it's real life.
- Tragic Hero: Beale, who in his autumn years just wanted to be done with all the bullshit, and ended up promoting it. And who dies in the end.
- Truth in Television: In so many ways.
- Visionary Villain: Arthur Jensen seems to be motivated beyond simply being a Corrupt Corporate Executive into something intensely ideological.
Jensen: You have meddled with the primal forces of nature, Mr. Beale, and I won't have it!
- We ARE Struggling Together: The Communist Party and the ECF can't stand each other, apparently. They collaborate anyway for the ratings.
- Western Terrorists: The leftist guerrilla group that The Mao Tse-Tung Hour follows, and who kill Beale on orders from the executives.
- Your Cheating Heart: Max Schumacher's extramarital affair with Diana Christensen.
All I know is that first you've got to get mad! You've got to say, "I'm a human being, goddammit! My life has value!"