Paddy Chayefsky’s Oscar-winning screenplay may have seemed a heavy-handed satirical takedown of the TV news business at the time, but it just seems sadly prophetic now. The epic meltdown that turns past-his-prime anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch) into “the mad prophet of the airwaves” has inspired similar scenes in Sorkin’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and Newsroom – and seems to have been the model for the entire TV career of Glenn Beck.
William Holden is the old-time newsman who is supposed to be the conscience of his rapidly devolving network news division, but he’s weak and flawed, as evidenced by his romantic attraction to conscience-free programmer Faye Dunaway. Her willingness to turn the news into a circus if it helps ratings, along with aggressive bean-counter Robert Duvall’s insistence that profit is the only measure of success, is clearly the future of television.
Her work presages the reality-TV, news-infotainment landscape we’ve come to accept as normal, though the movie’s most chilling predictive sequence may be the brief meeting between Finch and corporate overlord Ned Beatty, who chillingly tells him how things really work on a macro level: ” 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.”
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