AFI Catalog of Feature Films
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Director: Sidney Lumet (Dir)
Release Date:   14 Nov 1976
Duration (in mins):  121
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Cast: Faye Dunaway  (Diana Christensen)
  William Holden  (Max Schumacher)
  Peter Finch  (Howard Beale)

Summary: On 27 September 1975, Max Schumacher, the head of the United Broadcasting System’s (UBS) television news department, fires veteran newscaster and old friend Howard Beale because of his low ratings. To commiserate, Max drinks with Howard at a couple of New York City bars, and toward the end of the night, Howard drunkenly suggests that shooting himself during his broadcast might improve ratings. The equally inebriated Max jokingly adds that real-life murder and mayhem might improve the entire network’s ratings. The next evening, during his broadcast, Howard announces his upcoming retirement, and since he has nothing else in his life, he will “blow his brains out” on next Tuesday’s show. The comment creates a media flurry, and UBS executive Frank Hackett takes Howard off the air. The next day, Howard calls Max to apologize and ask if he can return to his show that night to say goodbye. Later, Los Angeles, California, news liaison Bill Herron shows Max and Diana Christensen, the head of UBS programming, film footage of a bank robbery taken by an African American revolutionary group, the Ecumenical Liberation Army (ELA). Herron tells them that his contact, Laureen Hobbs, a black U.S. Communist Party official, is in communication with the ELA and can supply the network with more crime footage. Though Max sees no news value in the film, Diana thinks UBS could build a new “movie of the week” around the ELA by mixing its anti-establishment crime footage with scripted stories. At a UBS stockholders’ meeting, Hackett announces plans to end the independent news division’s autonomy because it loses money. Discovering that his authority has been undermined, Max is outraged, and believes that Hackett purposely humiliated him. On Wednesday evening, Howard broadcasts his final show. He apologizes to his audience for his threatened suicide, and explains that he had no other recourse. Howard repeats a vulgarity several times, but Max refuses the producer’s request to take his friend off the air, even though sixty-seven million people are watching the incident on live television. UBS chairman Ed Ruddy asks for Max’s resignation, Howard Beale becomes a media sensation, and his rant is headlined on the front page of New York City’s biggest newspapers. Calling Howard a “latter day prophet denouncing the hypocracies of our time,” Diana tells Hackett she wants to put Howard back on the air, because his show rose five rating points in one night and will jump another fifteen points if he returns. She promises to make the news show a hit, and Hackett and Ruddy agree. Max is permitted to stay with UBS, and Howard’s ratings go up for the next few days. When public interest begins to wane, Diana demands that Howard act more extreme. She also adds new elements to the program, including a psychic and a gossip columnist. To solidify her authority over the enterprise, Diana seduces Max. The following night, Howard tells his audience that a voice woke him up that morning and told him to report the truth. Sleeping at Max’s apartment to avoid the press, Howard awakens the following morning, puts on his raincoat, and spends the day walking in the rain. When Max tells Hackett he wants to take Howard off the air because he is having an emotional breakdown, Hackett fires Max. Only minutes before Howard’s show begins that evening, he walks into UBS from the rain, still dressed in his pajamas, and complains to his television audience about the ills of society. He tells them to get out of their chairs, stick their heads out their windows, and yell, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore!” Diana receives calls from UBS affiliates around the country, reporting that people are screaming out their windows. At Max’s New York apartment, his daughter opens a window and watches hundreds of neighbors shouting Howard’s new catchphrase. Billed as “the mad prophet of the airwaves,” Howard skyrockets in the ratings. Diana travels to Los Angeles to talk with Laureen Hobbs about setting up the ELA’s “political terrorism” program, called The Mao Tse Tung Hour, even though the ELA is wanted by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation. Later, Howard tells his audience that UBS chairman Ed Ruddy has died and now the network’s owner, a conglomerate called Communication Corporation of America (CCA), will control the news content. Since few Americans read or think for themselves, and television is their only “truth,” they must save themselves by turning off their television sets. After Ruddy’s funeral, Max and Diana rekindle their relationship and vacation in New England for a weekend, while Max’s wife, Louise Schumacher, is out of town. Diana talks incessantly about rating shares and television business, even during sex, but despite his disapproval of Diana’s worldview, Max remains infatuated. When Max confesses the affair to his wife, she asks him to leave their apartment and he moves in with Diana. At the UBS affiliates convention in Los Angeles, Diana rouses the audience with the network’s new ratings, while Hackett is called away from the banquet to answer a phone call from CCA CEO Arthur Jensen’s office. Hackett is told to turn on a television set and watch Howard Beale inveighing against a consortium of banks that is buying CCA, and therefore UBS, for Saudi Arabian interests. Howard tells his audience to contact the White House and stop the deal. Informed that the East Coast broadcast alone has already flooded the U.S. President with telegrams, Hackett is ordered to return to New York City and have Howard Beale in Arthur Jensen’s office at 10 a.m. When they arrive, Jensen takes Howard into a private boardroom, berates him for wrecking the Saudi deal, and explains that corporations, not nations, run the world. Jensen wants Howard to preach this new message to his audience. When Howard returns to the air, he stops complaining about corporate greed and national ills. His ratings plummet. Diana wants to replace Howard, but Jensen demands that he stay on the air regardless of ratings. Realizing that Diana represents the madness that has taken over modern media, Max leaves her, hoping his wife may take him back. Diana and Hackett save their ratings by hiring the ELA to assassinate Howard during his television show.

Distribution Company: United Artists Corp.
Production Company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc.
Director: Sidney Lumet (Dir)
  Jay Allan Hopkins (1st asst dir)
  Ralph Singleton (2d asst dir)
  Pete Scoppa (1st asst dir)
Producer: Howard Gottfried (Prod)
  Fred Caruso (Assoc prod)
Writer: Paddy Chayefsky (by)

Subject Major: Assassination
  Mental illness
  Television networks
  Television news and information
Subject Minor: Advertising executives
  African Americans
  Business competition
  New York City
  New York Daily News (Newspaper)
  The New York Times (Newspaper)
  Television news anchors
  Terrorists and terrorism
  United States. Federal Bureau of Investigation

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The American Film Institute is grateful to Sir Paul Getty KBE and the Sir Paul Getty KBE Estate for their dedication to the art of the moving image and their support for the AFI Catalog of Feature Films and without whose support AFI would not have been able to achieve this historical landmark in this epic scholarly endeavor.
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