By Christopher P. Winner
here are times when the prescience demands its just due. This is just such a time.
In 1976, long before Tea Parties, Trumps and Brexits, American writer Paddy Chayefsky created the character of Howard Beale, a once-prized major newscaster in eclipse. In the movie "Network," Beale is introduced at the moment he's found out he's been fired. His ratings are too low. He's told he doesn't understand the times. He's asked to sign off blandly, politely, which he begins to do until an angry side emerges. That anger, a kind of madness, morphs into outright messianic rage. And that ranting is in turn manipulated and transformed into a hugely successful "newscast" that changes the rules of the TV game. The public is transfixed.
At the time, Chayefsky script was seen as a jet-black parody of the corporate news, greedy big business and the intrinsically impressionable nature of viewers. The 1970s were bleak times. Recession-ridden America hardly seemed great. Britain, "the poor man of Europe," was half-broke. Oil prices were high enough to produce mile-long gas lines and American gunplay. The Middle East had just seen the end of one war but seemed poised on the brink of yet another.
Chayefsky knew and worked from all this, spinning credible but improbable yarn.
One night, drunk and soaked in drenching Manhattan rains, Beale storms into the studio to "make his witness" on his newly popular nightly "news" show. The controlled abandon of the speech that follows, pure Chayefsky, should send shivers down the spine of those surveying today's events with excitement or bewilderment.
Howard Beale: 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 TVs 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!
We all know things are bad — worse than bad — they're crazy.
It's like everything everywhere is going crazy, so we don't go out any more. We sit in the house, and slowly the world we're living in is getting smaller, and all we say is, 'Please, at least leave us alone in our living rooms. Let me have my toaster and my TV and my steel-belted radials, and I won't say anything. Just leave us alone.'
Well, I'm not going to leave you alone.
I want you to get mad!
I don't want you to protest. I don't want you to riot. I don't want you to write to your Congressman, because I wouldn't know what to tell you to write. I don't know what to do about the depression and the inflation and the Russians and the crime in the street.
All I know is that first, you've got to get mad.
You've gotta say, 'I'm a human being, goddammit! My life has value!'
So, I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window, open it, and stick your head out and yell,
'I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!!
And in the film, people do just that, tentatively at first. But the crescendo builds.
Now, life imitates art, which is far less funny.
Though today's "madness" has been egged on by mass media, it is neither satire nor bluff. Like Beale's ranting, it reflects a mixture of rational and messianic energy cathartically intent on breakage and exclusion as a way to make war on a disliked present. It can be emotionally and intellectually satisfying to wreck that which is seen as irrevocably broken.
But that sharp feeling often passes, and what then?
In "Network," the "mad prophet's" ratings eventually begin to drop. His show loses viewers to other fads. In the end, his station decides that madness has outlived its usefulness. It decides the show must end in way that upholds the spectacular circus Beale has created.
So Howard Beale is shot to death on air. All in the audience think it's an act.
They applaud. Mad applause. Pyrrhic applause. Which you can hear all the way to now.
The first time divorce comes up it's the voice of reluctance that usually wins out.
One man's ranting against the distractions of digital "smartness" should come with a caveat.
Believing in peacetime and the rule of law conceals percolating "individual" wars.
Weather can seem to take the temperature of humans, not the other way around.
In 1970, talk of death intruded on a butterscotch sundae, but for good reason.
More Area 51