Charlie Sheen’s been quoting “Apocalypse Now” a lot during his ongoing public meltdown — “‘You have the right to kill me, but you do not have the right to judge me.’ Boom. That’s the whole movie. That’s life.” — but the film he should be watching to understand his own life is “Network,” which predicted just about everything in our modern telvision landscape, including Sheen’s recent rise from sitcom has-been to media circus ringleader.
If it’s been a while since you’ve seen director Sidney Lumet and writer Paddy Chayefsky’s “Network” — or if you haven’t seen it at all — it tells the story of Beale (Peter Finch), an aging network anchor who reacts to the news of his impending firing by using one his last shows to announce his intention to kill himself on live television. His bosses’ first reaction is to suspend him, but they reverse themselves when they realize that Beale’s public meltdown draws big ratings. Though Beale is undeniably insane, he’s also undeniably good TV, so the executives at UBS keep him on the air.
On Saturday, over 100,000 people tuned in to UStream to watch Charlie Sheen become Howard Beale. They could have watched him every week on CBS’ “Two and a Half Men” until his erratic behavior and insulting comments about his bosses got him fired. But all those Ustreamers were much more interested in Sheen’s post-dismissal behavior: Beale-ian rants about violence and persecution and rage. Sheen played the part so thoroughly he even provided his own Beale-ian catchphrases. Beale famously encouraged his viewers to go to their window and yell “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” On Saturday, Sheen wanted people to do the same with his catchphrase: “Duh, winning!”
That parallels between Beale and Sheen’s freakouts are eerie. After Beale is suspended from his gig on UBS, he becomes front page, top story news for every other media outlet in the country. And in the days after CBS finally fired Sheen from “Two and a Half Men” he appeared as a massive ratings draw for NBC’s “The Today Show,” “ABC’s “20/20,” CNN’s “Piers Morgan Tonight,” and “The Today Show” again. The only difference with “Network” is that CBS didn’t look at the ratings their competitors were milking from Sheen’s meltdown and grab for a piece of it themselves. Maybe they would have, if only Sheen, bitter over his firing, had let them.
The content of their screeds are similar too:
“I probably took more [drugs] than anybody could survive… I was bangin’ seven-gram rocks and finishing them because that’s how I roll, because I have one speed, one gear. Go. I’m different. I have a different constitution. I have a different brain. I have a different heart. I got tiger blood, man. Dying’s for fools, dying’s for amateurs.” — Charlie Sheen
“This is not a psychotic episode. This is a cleansing moment of clarity. I am imbued, Max. I am imbued with some special spirit. It’s not a religious feeling at all. It is a shocking eruption of great electrical energy. I feel vivid and flashing as if suddenly I had been plugged into some great electro-magnetic field. I feel connected to all living things, to flowers, birds, to all the animals of the world and even to some great unseen living force, what I think the Hindus call prana.” — Howard Beale
You could argue that Charlie Sheen hasn’t been a mentally well man for a while; you’d certainly having a tougher time arguing that he was in complete control of his faculties while he was trashing his room at the Plaza Hotel in an alleged coke rage. In one interview, Sheen joked that the only drug he was on was “Charlie Sheen.” But really the only thing he was worried about going cold turkey on was fame. Like Beale — another aging, single, substance abuser — it was the impending loss of the television spotlight that finally pushed Sheen over the edge. In an environment of media consolidation and political upheaval eerily similar to the one in “Network” — in one scene, Faye Dunaway marvels at the way Beale’s breakdown is more widely covered than skyrocketing oil prices and a civil war in Beirut — Sheen, a faded TV star speaking his unbalanced mind, has become the biggest story in the country.
Sheen’s rants don’t have Beale’s political dimensions — at least so far. So I don’t think we’ll see Sheen reenacting the apocalyptic end of “Network” (then again, the title of his proposed autobiography is “Apocalypse Me,” so who knows). Regardless, the people tuning in to watch Sheen putz around his home office on UStream are doing it for the same reason they fictional throngs flocked to Beale: because people in the worst emotional states make the best television.
One of my favorite scenes in “Network” is Beale’s announcement of his intention to commit suicide, seen from inside the control room at UBS. As he says he’s going to blow his brains out, a producer responds with “10 seconds to commercial.” The UBS staff is so dead inside from their years working in the TV industry that they don’t even notice his threat. Beale warned that watching television turns people into “humanoids.” Maybe. Or maybe television’s appeal is that it permits us to think the people on it are humanoids, which allows us to view its programming free of our sense of empathy. We watch reality television — the socially acceptable version of lunatics like Beale or Sheen — cheering for people’s failure, laughing when their hearts break, without ever considering the emotional impact these decisions must have on their real lives. They give us 45 minutes of entertainment for a potential lifetime of misery and shame.
Beale’s bosses fancy him a “modern day prophet renouncing the hypocrisies of our times.” Maybe the saddest part about the Charlie Sheen drama is that our real life Howard Beale doesn’t even renounce our hypocrisy. He only reinforces it.