In this film there are four major television networks; NBC, ABC, CBS and UBS. Clearly this is before the days of cable, television and satellites. When the film opens, the viewer is "overloaded" with information from the networks. The screen is filled with four television sets to represent each of the networks broadcasts.
UBS' top news anchor is Howard Beale (Peter Finch) and is baout to be fired by his boss, Max Schumacher (William Holden) as a result of failing ratings. Beale is given a two weeks notice and on his next broadcast he reveals to the public his plan to committ suicide on air at the end of the two weeks. He is immediately fired. However when ratings skyrocket the next night because all the other news netwroks are covering the story, Max gets him back on air so he can apologize and bid the public farewell in an appropriate manner. Beale comes back on air and rants and raves about everything being "bullshit." Again, ratings go up. His third night on air during his final two weeks is the big "I'm mad as hell speech." Perhaps one of the most famous fits in the history of film. Beale defies everything about 1970's network news and rants and raves.
Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) sees nothing but dollar signs and ratings in this fit and talks her boss, Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall) into giving Beale his own show. His show essentially becomes what would today be nothing more then a Fox News or CNN ranter. Perhaps a Glen Beck or Nancy Grace so to speak. The whole point of the show is for Beale to speak his mind, regardless of whether it is right or wrong. His viewpoints however, completely ungrounded and not thought out, interferre with the business of international loans, debts, and money exchanges. Over time, his rants cause problems with the network financially in more ways then one. Ratings fall and Christensen can't have that. Ultimately, the only way to bring ratings back up and to get rid of Beale is to kill him...on air. This is done with members of a political opposition group who is about to be given their own show. This stint would be the perfect tie in to that show and a great way to get the largest share of viewers.
The movie is well written and extremely ahead of it's time. When you watch it, you have to remember the concepts were somewhat foreign at the time. People didn't speak their mind on the news. Perhaps this was an introduction to real networks using personal viewpoints as the basis to their shows. Was UBS an inspiration to FOX becoming the 4th network with shocking, controversial material to get viewers. Watching this movie today is probably more interesting now because you can see the impact it had on the industry. In 1976, the ideas in the film were probably quite comical and extreme. There are several references to the current culture of the 70's - particularily other shows on air and the Patty Hearst headline. Which was followed by their version of the story with the heiress being named Mary Ann Gifford (Kathy Cronkite).
The only part of the movie I didn't like was when Max left his wife (Beatrice Straight) to start a love affair with Christensen. It was a relationship you knew wouldn't last or work. It slowed the movie down. I think maybe it was just to show Christensen as being cold and heartless and to exemplify how all she cared about was ratings. It seemed like pointless filler, but it did provide Beatrice Straight 5 minutes and 40 seconds to be in the film as Max's wife.
Academy Awards wise, this film has some interesting records. This is the only film that won 3/4 awards for the acting category: Peter Finch as Best Actor, Faye Dunaway as Best Actress and Beatrice Straight as Best Supporting Actress. Straight had the shortest amount screentime for an Oscar performance. Finch was the first to win the award posthumously.