Here’s a movie that I have to review twice. The thing is, I saw one movie forty-one years ago, and another movie last night. I will call them Then, and Now.
THEN: If there was ever a better screenwriter than Paddy Chayefsky I’ve never heard of him. William Goldman is great, but he’s not deep. Ernest Lehman, Ingmar Bergman, Woody Allen, the Coen Brothers … all wonderful. But none of them have ever moved me or stunned me as deeply as Chayefsky. He won the Oscar three times, for Marty, The Hospital, and this one. To that I would add The Americanization of Emily, which should have won in 1965.
This movie is simply one of the best satires ever made. It hits in the gut. The acting is terrific. Faye Dunaway won Best Actress and Beatrice Straight won for Best Supporting Actress. Peter Finch’s brilliant performance won, posthumously, and he was up against William Holden, who was also brilliant here. Ned Beatty should have won Best Supporting Actor for perfectly delivering possibly the most stunning speech ever written for the screen. It was nominated for ten Oscars. What else can I say? It’s a goddam masterpiece.
NOW: It wasn’t satire! Almost all of it has come true! Only the most extreme things Chayefsky imagined are still satirical, like the program where a group of radical criminals pull off a terror attack every week … and I’ve seen stuff that is almost that bad. (They are hilarious, by the way. These anti-capitalists, including an Angela Davis clone, are soon arguing about their time slot, and distribution rights.) We see things in this movie that were thought to be way beyond the pale when he wrote them, and are pretty much standard practice now. And many things have gotten even worse than he dared imagine. How could he have predicted Fox News?
You know what he did predict? Donald Trump. Not as president, but as the voice of the angry people. The most famous scene here, and one that will always give me goosebumps, is when Howard Beale, the Mad Prophet of the Airwaves, exhorts his viewers to go to their windows and shout into the night: “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” How else can you account for 63,000,000 people voting for a ridiculous orange orangutan fraud? Because he voiced their rage, something good old, safe and sane, solidly establishment Hillary Clinton could never do. (I don’t think she still gets why she lost. I don’t think she ever will.) I’m telling you, boys and girls, it is impossible for me to watch that scene now and not think of Trump. The sad thing is that Howard Beale wanted to do some good. And Americans got taken in by a huckster, the very sort that Beale would have despised. Crazy as Howard was, he wasn’t that crazy.