Movie review: “Broadcast News” (1987)


“You know, I’m just old enough to be flattered by the term ‘early retirement’.”

“That’s wonderful. What a lovely line. Now, if there’s anything I can do for you…”

“Well…I certainly hope you’ll die soon.”

Some twenty-five years since I first saw it at entirely too young an age, James L. Brooks’ Broadcast News remains one of cinema’s great thoughtful treatises on the pains, rewards, and, above all, complexities of adult relationships, both on and off the clock. The film is warm and funny, incisive and contemplative, and, at just the right time, stony and heartbreaking. It offers an engaging, full-spectrum view of a somewhat mysterious profession, television journalism (especially in the late 1980s), that few films before or since it can match, and does so almost as an afterthought, subordinating the fascinating background detail in favor of the foreground story of three very specific, highly-motivated newspersons, who love each other almost as much as they love what they do. Almost. Its central love triangle, wherein the affections of a high strung news producer are pursued by a neurotic but brilliant field reporter and an opportunistic yet humane anchor, is one of the most carefully crafted interpersonal dynamics I’ve ever seen on screen, with great effort expended by the superb cast and writer/director Brooks to make the characters recognizable and relatable, to define their specific limitations in terms both subtle and stark – and make those the barriers against which they struggle – and to never demonize them even when they do rash, petty things or make patently selfish proclamations. The film is refreshingly light on the laundry list of conventions that have traditionally weighed down and drowned romantic comedies, instead taking the nearly unprecedented tact of presenting grown-ups, hard-working and driven, loving and contentious, hopeful and resentful, merely acting their age.

broadcast posterWell, for the most part. Broadcast News is immediately noteworthy for the obvious, meticulous care Brooks has taken in crafting these characters, and for the total faith he has in his world-class cast to explore within the parameters he’s created. These aren’t impossibly articulate hyper-professionals who meet every challenge with a lusty war cry and invariably conquer it without even breaking a sweat (a bit more on that later). These are incredibly stressed professionals, diligently climbing the corporate ladder – or dangling precariously from a tricky rung – in a competitive and power-mad town, apparently saying what they feel at almost all times. Their brains, for better or worse, never, ever seem to power down. They are shown thinking, listening, interrupting, thinking and listening some more, reacting, and, obviously, overreacting, but are never reduced to the mere rote exercise of an actor hitting his or her mark. Instead, they routinely stomp right up to the cliff’s edge and, occasionally, even take a swan dive. Brooks isn’t afraid to make his characters vulnerable, or to show them periodically crashing and burning. It makes them more endearing. He clearly loves his three principals, and wants them to grow. He even has the courage as a writer to defer or even deny his characters a traditional happy ending, though, in that, much depends on the audience’s point of view.

Brooks’ twin gifts, which have been borne out time and again over an inconsistent career littered with cinematic highs*, are for robust characterization and clever dialogue. Broadcast News is his high water mark. Unlike some creators, who clearly prioritize their favorites, each facet here both informs and enhances the other. Brooks writes his three principals as fully-formed individuals, as opposed to a savant like, say, Aaron Sorkin (currently mining similar terrain unevenly on HBO’s The Newsroom), whose trademark gymnastic dialogue always seems of a single piece and suitable for any or all speakers, no matter how highbrow and technically spectacular it may be. Here, the characters dictate what’s said, how it’s said, and the implications of those words both present and future. It seems a small distinction, but maybe that’s only because a majority of film writers seem timid, safe, or overly comfortable to me, or else are so enthralled by the story they’re telling, their surpassing talent, or both, that the predominant voice emanating from the screen belongs to them rather than to their characters. There is no mistaking Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks) – the elitist intellectual who is first crestfallen and then increasingly bitter when his unrequited love falls hard for his “flash over substance” rival – for anyone else, or Jane Craig (Holly Hunter) – Altman’s news producer and painfully platonic best friend, a woman so erratic personally and tightly wound professionally that she’s beginning to unravel from the strain – or even Tom Grunick (William Hurt), the pretty boy anchor on a professional hot streak whose arrival in D.C. throws both their worlds into upheaval.

*The obvious highs, besides “Broadcast News”, would be “Terms of Endearment” and “As Good As It Gets”, both of them fellow multiple Oscar nominees. Brooks, of course, is also the executive producer of legendary TV shows “Taxi” and “The Simpsons”. So, yeah, his legacy overall is fairly secure.

These are three extraordinary, singular performances, all Oscar-nominated (as was the film and Brooks’ screenplay), and propelled from mere existence into full-blooded life on screen with the aid of Brooks’ cutting dialogue. Holly Hunter’s Jane is a steady, proficient, professional hand forever teetering on the verge of personal crisis, a perfectionist workaholic who is prone to bursting into tears during her most private moments. She meets William Hurt’s Tom at a news professional’s convention and is instantly attracted to him, though when he opens up about his rank inadequacies as a journalist, and how his rise from the local sports desk has continued unabated in spite of that fact, Jane, a capital-J Journalist if ever there was one, can’t help but spontaneously dress him down in precisely the way he wasn’t anticipating. “I hated how you spoke to me just now,” says Tom before leaving her room. “And it wasn’t just because you were right.” Her night now an unequivocal shambles, Jane reaches out to her torch-carrying confidant Aaron, lamenting that “I have crossed some line some place. I am beginning to repel people I’m trying to seduce.” As a friend, Aaron is outwardly sympathetic, but has his own agenda to advance. “He must’ve been really good-looking”, he suggests, since, “no one invites a bad-looking idiot to their bedroom.” If Jane is the film’s central character, her complicated friendship with Aaron is its foundation, and the introduction of Tom into the mix, as a golden boy sent seemingly to test her journalistic ethics and extinguish Aaron’s comparatively dim professional star, while neatly stealing away the woman he loves in the process, pulls it, and them, in all sorts of unexpected and compelling directions.

Director Brooks inserts this trio into what, in lesser hands, would probably still have been a fairly engaging story about the television news business. Broadcast News takes place in the all-important Washington bureau of a never-named national network (Jack Nicholson has a delicious cameo as its larger-than-life anchor), which is one of the final stepping stones on the path to the top, although deep budget cuts and mass firings loom on the horizon. Tom’s meteoric rise is marked by 1) a sterling sequence of physical comedy – where, on his first day, an intense editing session devolves into an all-out desperation sprint, as Jane’s assistant (an appealingly frazzled Joan Cusack) negotiates a gauntlet of office obstacles to deliver a story for last-second live national viewing – 2) a breathtakingly intimate set piece – when Tom is pressed into trial by fire anchor duty by breaking news from the Mediterranean and Jane guides him through the chaos with cues and encouragement fed directly into his earpiece – and 3) his first ever solo field report, the affecting profile of a date rape survivor that sets his ascent in stone. Meanwhile, Aaron, sick of his lack of prospects, professional mobility, and, as he notes following a brief cutaway during a firefight in Nicaragua, risking his life “for a network that tests my face with focus groups”, angles hard for a fill-in spot anchoring the Weekend News, and casts open aspersions on Tom, mocking him for his lack of reporting chops and lamenting his success. “What do you do,” Tom asks sincerely, “when your real life exceeds your dreams?” “Keep it to yourself,” Aaron helpfully suggests. As Jane and Tom’s relationship grows deeper, Tom and Aaron increasingly spar, in part for Jane’s figurative hand and in part in a turf war over their differing conceptions of and approaches to journalism. Aaron becomes convinced that the tears Tom was shown crying in his date rape report were staged. When the time finally comes for Aaron to guest host the Weekend News, Tom consents to give him pointers before taking Jane out to the Congressional Correspondents Dinner. Aaron’s live performance is a showstopper in all but the precisely literal sense of the word. This show is live, after all. It must always go on.

Tom’s live report of the Libyan attack on a U.S. airbase in Sicily, with Jane executive producing, is the film’s centerpiece, justly celebrated by critics and audiences alike, and all but introduced/ modernized the concept of the disembodied lover’s voice guiding the hero through a trial into/within the cinematic vernacular. Brooks plays it as a sort of fluid, romantic duet with Tom at the anchor desk, confidence steadily growing, and Jane in his ear, resistance incrementally softening. They’re both mightily turned on by how good the other is at his/her job. Aaron, left out of the broadcast entirely by the powers that be, watches events unfurl on TV from his apartment, by turns flippant, defiant, bemused, professional, and, finally, seething. In this scene, among others, Albert Brooks brings so much of his own finely-honed comedic sensibilities to Altman that we instinctively reject the slow, sure realization that his character is becoming an exquisite jerk. When Aaron chooses the exact wrong night and circumstance to lay all his romantic cards on the table, he and Jane produce a contentious, marvelous duet of their own. Holly Hunter, despite her inability to center Jane in the face of her constantly shifting romantic and professional landscapes, holds the movie together with her disarming combination of fragility and intensity. Tom is only truly inadequate in a room full of overachieving near-geniuses, and William Hurt does a terrific job of making him the most grounded, self-aware character on screen, his comparative ease both in the world and with himself forever rubbing Altman the wrong way and threatening to light some new fuse within Jane. When brutal departmental reorganization threatens to completely upend the status quo, these characters struggle to grasp stability any way they can. Some will claim that Broadcast News ends cheaply, or unsatisfactorily, to which I would disagree with my whole heart. I will allow, at best, that it ends unexpectedly, though in a way that eschews naked sentimentality and does right by its characters.

I could talk about Broadcast News all day, really. It’s not a failing; there is much to talk about. This is a piece of work so multifaceted and rich that viewers will almost invariably notice a new slew of details each time they watch. My initial viewing of the Criterion blu-ray wasn’t quite the revelation that, say, seeing Halloween widescreen was after years of having memorized the visually mangled home video version, but I was nevertheless struck all over again by Brooks’ classy competence behind the camera. The movie glides and breathes. It feels both lived in and exotic, and makes a great deal, if not exactly the most, out of its Washington, D.C. locations. And witnessing Aaron Altman’s “historic case of flop sweat” in real time HD was a comedy riot. Pair high technical competence with sublime characterization and storytelling mastery, and it’s just a recipe for a great time at the movies. Despite the inevitable period/setting trappings (Land lines! Pay phones! Videotape! TV monitors the size/ shape of pyramid bricks!) and comparatively ancient technology on display, Broadcast News still doesn’t seem appreciably out of step with modern variations on the (exact) same theme, such as the aforementioned Newsroom, and its the emotional quotient is miles ahead. I always knew Broadcast News was kind of brilliant, but I was delighted to discover – this time much closer to the proper viewing age – that it is also kind of timeless. It tells hard but resonant, and edifying, truths of the heart. I just enjoy these characters so much, flaws and all. I want to sit down with them over lunch and laugh and pick their brains. I felt tempted to sum this movie up with a flip comment like, “they sure don’t make ‘em like that anymore.” The truth is I don’t know if they ever did.

“Broadcast News” (1987) 4/4 stars

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