The medium is the message – or so they say. If Paddy Chayefsky’s classic TV news satire isn’t just prescient, but positively prophetic in our age of fake news, the point is pressed home by an intricate multimedia staging that makes it almost impossible to tell fact from fiction.
Majestically played by “Breaking Bad’s” Bryan Cranston, anchorman Howard Beale carves up the day’s news with increasing apoplexy in a bid for record ratings, and it’s impossible not to see our own era of rolling fury reflected. After an impromptu on-air outburst bumps his failing nightly news show ahead of its rivals, the network’s bosses push him to keep ranting on repeat. That makes Beale a lightning rod for a nation’s rage, inciting viewers to declare themselves “mad as hell” en masse, and he cuts through a corrosive and corrupted system simply by calling attention to its corruption — Trumpian tactics, as plain as day. It’s uncanny, a warning fresh from 1976, but it’s so on-the-money it can seem on-the-nose.
But Beale’s furious displays are, ultimately, unsustainable — repeated rage eventually wears itself out. Cranston artfully suggests Beale as a latter-day, middle-aged Hamlet, staring at his reflection in a dressing room mirror, caught between a genuine onscreen meltdown and a performance of madness. Chayefsky’s script, nipped and tucked for the stage by the playwright Lee Hall (“Billy Elliot”), picks that idea up in a subplot, as two television executives, Michelle Dockery’s glossily ambitious producer and Douglas Henshall’s honest old newshound, start an illicit affair that grinds down into cliché. Self-awareness, eventually, creeps into everything. All spontaneity slips into scripted reality.
That’s smartly exacerbated by van Hove’s layered production on Jan Versweyveld’s vast TV studio set. As news slides toward entertainment and Beale slips…