Broadcast News (1987)

The truth Hurt(s). William Hurt is Tom Grunick. "Broadcast News."

Written, produced and directed by James L. Brooks. Music by Bill Conti. Photographed by Michael Ballhaus. Edited by Richard Marks. Production designed by Charles Rosen. Starring William Hurt, Albert Brooks, Holly Hunter, Robert Prosky, Lois Chiles, Joan Cusack, Peter Hackes, Christian Clemenson, Jack Nicholson.

James L. Brooks’ Broadcast News knows a lot about the media, and knows a lot more about the kind of people who toil in it. It’s the kind of film you wish were made about every profession: smart, funny and perceptive, particularly in the way it captures the lives of individuals who work in an industry that rests between show and substance. It is just as conscientious about the state of the television news media as Network, but in a rare move for a film about a big social topic, doesn’t limit itself. It crafts characters who are themselves, not thin signifiers for a grander statement. And it brings those characters to life with three peerless performances by Holly Hunter, William Hurt and Albert Brooks – Hunter at her absolute best, Hurt at his most charismatic, and Albert Brooks is…well, Albert Brooks. He’s a national treasure. Don’t argue.

In a way, Broadcast News plays like a warm bookend to the circus of Network (reviewed just a few weeks ago). That movie was about the what people will do to make great television, and this film focuses on the other half of the cycle, noting the real effects that working in TV can have on people. When we first meet Jane Craig as a young girl in a charming prologue, she objects to the way her father calls her “obsessive.” Cut to twenty years later, where Jane (Holly Hunter) scoops up half a dozen newspapers on the way to a hotel, chats up a friend on the phone, then sits quietly still, before having an explosive cry that subsides just as quickly as it came.

Jane is possibly bipolar, but when she shows up for work as a producer for the D.C. bureau of a major network, she is in her element. In one showstopping sequence, she is brainstorming a re-edit of a package due on air in fifteen minutes within a cool 14:59, acting as inspiration, team captain and cheerleader all at once, while an assistant frets at the top of her lungs. Jane’s overall philosophy is to exact maximum control while operating invisibly: when a field cameraman tries to manipulate a shot by asking a revolutionary to put on his boot, Jane lambasts him and then says with the utmost seriousness: “Sir, do whatever you want to do.” He thinks, then puts on the boot. This satisfies her. The camera crew’s presence remains antiseptic. All is right in her world. Jane is, I suppose, no student of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, perhaps because it contains the word “Uncertainty.”

Jane is one part of a great team, the other half being Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks), a field reporter, a mensch, lacking in screen presence – the kind of guy who is really nice yet disliked in the office just the same. Aaron is the embodiment of everything that Jane loves about the news – he is honest, compassionate, and holds contempt for sensationalism of any kind. He is also so sympathetic and loyal that naturally he presumes one day they would become closer – when a man finally does enter her life, he’s saddened by being unceremoniously shuttled to a supporting role. That other man is Tom Grunick (William Hurt), a smooth and confident anchorperson who knows nothing about the world, but sure knows how to look good on camera. Jane finds herself inexplicably falling in love with Tom, even though he’s everything she despises about the news media: flashy, slick, empty.

I dislike calling this plot a “love triangle” even though that is geometrically correct. It’s more than that. For one thing, sex doesn’t enter into the equation very much, if at all, because this is a conflict of ideals and intellect just as much as it is of passion. And also because the film sees all three of these characters as individuals, and doesn’t vilify any of them. Instead, we see the moments when they are tempted to compromise on their absolutes, for understandable reasons. It would be far too easy if Tom was a jerk, if Aaron was stalwart and unflawed, and Jane was well-adjusted (although I think her self-diagnosis as a basket case is a little harsh). Each of them is granted strengths and weaknesses, hopes and fears. The richness helps: instead of observing plot mechanics, we get involved. Just like Jane’s work philosophy, none of this feels staged.

Tom is no dummy, because writer/director James L. Brooks is far too interested in his characters to make one of them stupid – Tom simply lacks the necessary curiosity someone like Jane thinks he should have. But there is a lot of stuff he does know about appearing on camera, tips he shares with Aaron to prep him for a guest news anchor slot that goes disastrously (murmurs a cameraman: “Nixon didn’t sweat that much.”) And there’s an attraction between Tom and Jane that goes beyond the physical, as he can more than carry his end of a conversation between them. There is the physical, too, however. During one sequence, a dejected Aaron calls from home and gives Jane pertinent fact that she feeds to Tom through an earpiece (Aaron: “I say it here, it comes out there.”) The erotic charge as Jane whispers facts about military operations and F-14 Tomcats is palpable: foreplay for workaholics.

What I enjoy so much about Brooks’ directing style is how little of a style it is. Some might say it’s flat. I think it’s controlled, just like Jane’s method of business is controlled. He has the bravery to have Hunter do much of her acting in longer takes, emphasizing the suddenness with which she ping-pongs between pride and self-loathing. It’s daring and confident display of mise-en-scène. The approach allows for languid shots that emphasize the geography of bullpens, offices and apartments, and also highlight body language and composure: the two key ingredients in a network newscast. One scene takes place in a lavish house during a party, and I enjoy the way the camera finds Albert Brooks, distanced from two different cliques at once (Tom and Jane on one hand, the news moguls who have no faith in him on the other).

Beneath all of the storytelling is the tricky question of what is fabricated on the news, and what is not. The film takes place right at the time when news shows were applying their glossy coats, where programs were getting that extra sheen that made them pure edutainment: cooler graphics, sensational topics, methods more like docudrama than documentary. One major plot point hinges upon Hunter’s dedication that the news reports they prepare for broadcast are un-staged, which seems almost quaint in a world where interviews and reports are so clearly dressed up, over-edited, and under the mercies of corporate whims. Yet this relic of a bygone era is touching rather than melancholy, because it so neatly defines what Jane is all about. How this ties into a package Tom eventually puts together on date rape I won’t say. But I will say it leads neatly to a climax where Jane has to decide everything for herself, once and for all. And note the grace with which Aaron delivers his key piece of information, when he says “I’m fairly sure I was right to tell you.” Perfect line.

Broadcast News is filled with loving touches. Even dialogue like “I’ll meet you at the place near the thing where we went that time” supply a laugh and a breath of insight, because it’s inside talk between two people who have a natural rapport. So surefooted is the screenplay (also by Brooks) that even when we sense it’s stepping wrong it justifies itself. Having seen the film just recently, I kept revisiting the scene where Brooks and Hunter finally lay out their feelings (after she declares her love for Tom). It is equal parts sophistication and immaturity, loud and heartfelt. It’s irritating if you are not on its wavelength, the way it ping-pongs between subtle and overwrought. But then it hits you that these are people who shout for a living: in control rooms, in the field, barking orders and screaming stand-ups for cameras to record so they can be ground into sound bites for people to casually see over their dinner plates. Of course when it comes to the stuff that really mattered there would be some real shouting. And then there’s that throwaway moment, rather inexplicable, where two composers (one of them played by real-life composer Marc Shaiman) come in and demo a new jingle for the news program. I have no idea why it’s here, but the priceless reaction it gets (which I won’t spoil) makes it essential.

William Hurt is an actor who, and I say this as a big admirer, tends to get a little detached sometimes. That would be fatal for a character like Tom, who has to be right there, right now, because he is “it.” And that’s how Hurt plays him: savvy, smooth, bemused by his own success without any suspicious humility. He has to be seductive to Jane but obnoxious to Aaron, who calls him “the devil” and sorta means it. Hurt is so warm and ingratiating, his eventual capacity to betray feels all the more wounding because he doesn’t view it as betrayal. It’s maybe the best role I’ve ever seen him in. He was nominated for an Oscar for News, as were Brooks, Hunter, cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, editor Richard Marks, and Brooks for best screenplay and best picture. It won none of these awards. Sigh.

Albert Brooks is splendid at playing the guy we’ve all been at one point in our lives: lonely, fearful, stuck on someone who not only does not reciprocate your feelings, but doesn’t even give them room. And Hunter (who looks surprisingly like Jodie Foster in this role) is terrific at making Jane a likeable career woman who still is capable of surprising herself. Even the supporting parts are great: Joan Cusack plays the assistant that every office has: the one who thinks its their job to announce the fact that everything’s about to fall apart. When classic-mode Jack Nicholson shows up in a cameo and does not steal the film away, you know something is going very right.

Writer/producer/director James L. Brooks is one of the best triple threats in the entertainment business, even though lately he’s met with limited success (SpanglishHow Do You Know…) That’s because he’s at his best when he focuses on eccentrics rather than normal people: the quirkiness of Terms of Endearment, or Jack Nicholson’s OCD misogynist in As Good As It Gets. Or consider the entire oddball population of the city of Springfield in the Brooks-produced series The Simpsons, which is a riot of character invention. But a Brooks film is not content with creating colorful goofs. Instead he loves and examines them, and allows us to bestow so much empathy. There’s also a tremendous amount of heart typically on display, and a generosity to see all sides of an equation. Yes, there are some questions to how honest a guy Tom really is. But when Jane storms in to confront him and bumps into Tom’s father, not many writers would give him the response he has after she’s left: “The way she just acted is not the way an affectionate person acts.”

How is it that Brooks is able to do what he does? How does he develop these characters in ways that stretch them beyond our small preconceptions? I think because he is never content; he always pushes his concepts past the easy points. There’s an early scene in Broadcast News that shows what I mean, when Jane pulls aside a network executive to question his decision to finally put Tom in the news anchor desk. The exec is patronizing at first, but Jane digs her heels in, adamant that it’s the wrong decision. “It must be nice,” says the executive, “to always believe you know better.  To think you’re always the smartest person in the room.” It’s a basic put-down. Good, but first-level. But then Jane replies. Not with anger, or impatience, but with a trace of despair, so much that it hurts: “No. It’s awful.” That’s next-level thinking, which is rare. And special. What a great line. What a wonderful movie.

GRADE: A

NEXT TIME PERIOD: 2003, 2006, 2007 – The Pirates of the Caribbean Trilogy

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