Howard Beale: Television is not the truth. Television is a goddamned amusement park.
F: Sort of… But this is my first time seeing it all the way through.
R: Yes a couple of times.
F: This is an interesting one! It’s a fairly scathing view of the television industry but I think I expected it to be more shocking than it was.
R: It’s a film that prioritises its politics over its characters. Very little time is wasted trying to make us like any of these people, instead the focus is on the corrupting power of TV. That approach is probably appropriate given one of the messages of the film is how superficial TV can be.
F: Agree we don’t learn much about these characters outside of the TV world. I have to say I could have done without any of the subplots and wish the film focussed purely on Howard Beale. By far the most interesting person and storyline in the film.
R: I’d say all the characters are “interesting”, but Howard is certainly the one who’s most sympathetic. I can see why you might have wanted more focus on him, but it has to be an ensemble I think, because the idea is surely to show you all the different ways the chase for ratings and money corrupts people. It’s fair to say everyone ends the film a worse version of themselves, isn’t it?
F: Definitely! Although most were pretty bad to begin with. [SPOILERS] What about that penultimate scene? Fairly shocking! I could see it coming but still felt blunt.
R: You’re talking about the scene where the executives conclude they have no choice but to kill Howard Beale, aren’t you? Again, it serves to show how dehumanised and alienated they’ve become, but I agree there could have been more set up. But I suppose this is the world of TV, where decisions need to be made quickly…
F: Even decisions of life and death?
R: Especially decisions of life and death!
F: To me the most telling scene is at the beginning where Howard announces live on air he’s going to commit suicide but no-one is listening to him! It draws an eerie comparison with Christine, a film about the real life suicide of a news anchor whilst on air.
R: The thing that makes the film so disturbing is how plausible it feels, despite having such outlandish characters. I feel like anyone who questions the value of the BBC and the license fee should be forced to watch this film. It makes a pretty strong argument for having television programmes created for reasons other than profit. Long before reality TV became a thing, this shows us that it’s way too easy to make popular TV that only appeals to our lowest, worst instincts…
F: Yes the programme that Howard ends up fronting with a fortune teller etc is all too familiar.
R: I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they’ve had psychics as guests on Fox News; and they certainly believe in using anger to sex up their stories! But what did you think of the acting in this?
F: I think all of the performances are great. I did have to check that Peter Finch is actually English as I could hear his accent coming through in some of the scenes where he rants, but it’s a minor point in an otherwise flawless performance. Also nice to see William Holden here doing something a bit more interesting than grunting and riding a horse.
R: Got to give Faye Dunaway a shout out too I think. For me, hers is really the stand out performance. She is totally believable as the young executive whose cynicism is only exceeded by her ambition. But as much as I enjoyed the film it does feel dated now. The golden age of TV is long over and if you were to retell this story today it would undoubtedly be about the internet.
F: Oh 100%! Although Nightcrawler springs to mind as a film about how news footage is still one of the best ways to make an impact and that having the best shots and highest ratings is still a huge issue.
R: Ooh Nightcrawler, there is another really excellent film…
Is it worthy of the top 100?
F: As I said at the start – this is an interesting one! I’m going to say yes though.
R: Dark and funny and hugely influential. Because of its age it’s perhaps not the most straightforwardly enjoyable of the films we’ve said “yes” to, but certainly worthy.