Sunday, June 26, 2011

Broadcast News (James L. Brooks, 1987)

None of James L. Brooks' films condense his sitcom sensibilities better than Broadcast News. Where so many of his movies feel treacly and thin, Broadcast News offers a well-rounded portrait of fully realized characters whose story does not overstay its welcome. That's the other thing: were it any longer, or were it a television series instead of a one-off movie, the archetypes Holly Hunter, William Hurt and Albert Brooks embody might have consumed them and left only two-dimensional cut-outs for easy humor that turned stale in short order. Somehow, Brooks positions the film perfectly in the middle, clearly drawing upon his television outlook but making something uniquely filmic out of the material.

Using his stint as an CBS News writer as the basis for the film, Brooks casts a spotlight on the news industry in flux. Television has become the dominant means of news communication, and Brooks looks into the medium shortly before the likes of CNN completely altered the format from individual news programs to a 24-hour machine. At times, though, one can hardly tell that the characters only produce news for an hour-long (if that) block of programming, as the Washington newsroom bustles at all times with people desperately trying to get segments finished on-time and watching playbacks with fervent hope that the lead anchor up in New York, a godly presence appropriately played by Jack Nicholson, will give even the slightest indication of approval.

For cynical journalism majors like myself, Broadcast News offers not just an accurate view of TV news in the '80s but a disturbingly prescient view of the ethical shift in journalism in the modern age. Or perhaps that's the wrong way to put it: as the jumpy Blair (Joan Cusack) tells the network's news president, newspapers hunt readers as viciously as TV seeks viewers. Two of the three main characters, the gifted but overly acerbic reporter Aaron (Albert Brooks) and the blunt producer Jane (Holly Hunter), constantly rail against TV news, though they not only work in the profession but even cut video segments for calculated impact.

It's better, then, to say that Broadcast News shows the changing face of that ratings grab, moving away from unique story ideas, exclusive interviews and more appealing writing to mere flash. The papers might have their fluff stories, but they'd at least try to have good writers pen them. Now, TV simply requires shiny images to win over the public. At a conference on the state of TV news, Jane rants about the dangers of the modern approach to news as an assembly of colleagues yawn, chatter amongst themselves and even walk out en masse. Flailing, Jane makes one last attempt to prove her point by showing a tape of a meaningless domino display that every network ran instead of covering something serious like nuclear treaty talks. The audience of adults who supposedly entered journalism to spread truth suddenly turn back in delight and even applaud the video of cascading, colorful dominoes.

Now, any idiot can tell the news, a change in broadcasting personified by Tom (William Hurt), a sports anchor looking to make it big despite his lack of education, experience or even basic intelligence. Hurt's performance is perhaps his finest: from the second he walks up admiringly to Jane in the aftermath of her disastrous address, he communicates utter stupidity in his eyes. Before he even opens his mouth, his beaming, empty smile gives him away, and sure enough, he soon proves himself an idiot, albeit one with as much ambition as either Jane or Aaron. Crucially, however, Tom knows he's a dolt with no understanding of news, and Hurt plays him with an earnest desire to learn and get ahead that gives dimension to what might otherwise have been a one-trick prop. That complexity also allows the audience to buy, however reluctantly, that Jane would so quickly fall in love with him though she knows he represents everything she hates.

Brilliantly, Brooks weaves together two distinct threads, the love triangle between Jane, Tom and Aaron (who's been Jane's best friend for years but cannot come out and say how much he loves her) and the workplace satire of the newsroom, into one unified narrative. The professional mixes with the political: Tom's rapid ascension within the network mirroring Jane's conflicting feelings of love and repulsion, while that personal turmoil tugging at Jane fleshes out her professional behavior as a blunt, almost aggressive ringleader. Some of the film's finest scenes perfectly encapsulate Brooks' deft handling of the two plots; Tom's first time in the anchor's chair necessitates complete planning by Jane to prevent his inanity from slipping out, and Brooks films the resulting broadcast from behind the scenes, showing how Tom's charisma filters Jane's instructions, most of which come from Aaron's wide base of knowledge on key news topics. In essence, we see the triangle played out through a completely professional prism: Aaron, unable not to help and support his friend and love, assists her in making Tom look good, which only makes him more attractive to her, and Tom's own elation at succeeding draws him closer to Jane.

At every turn, this feels like a James L. Brooks film, but at times I wondered if the other Brooks involved did some punch-up. Albert Brooks gives such an impeccable, completely A. Brooksian performance as Aaron that part of me refused to believe he was reading someone else's lines. Albert Brooks directs the comedian's own cynicism against himself, positioning Aaron's hostile wit as an outgrowth of his pain over Jane's strictly Platonic view of him. Anyone who has ever been in the "friend zone" with a pal you'd give anything to be more than a friend will find Brooks' performance acutely, almost unwatchably real. He tries to drop hints to Jane, asking with wistful neurosis, "Wouldn't this be a great world if insecurity and desperation made us more attractive? If needy were a turn-on?" Aaron makes one final, desperate appeal for Jane with a monologue that mixes the best of both Brookses: in a fit of pique, Aaron unleashes a half-series rant on how Tom is the devil, expounding on the idea that Satan is always attractive, kind and unassuming, but that he subtly tears down everything until all that's left is misery and chaos. It's a hilarious outburst, but also one that mingles not only the same personal and professional concerns simultaneously weighing on these characters but Aaron's biting sarcasm and genuine agony over losing Jane. And when, after so much waffling, Aaron finally admits his love for Jane, I was so happy Albert Brooks got the part, as no one else could have sold the line, "How do ya like that? I buried the lead" with infinite heartbreak and bitter resignation instead of snappy punnery.

But no one compares to Hunter. Jonathan Rosenbaum said Jane was "the most intricately layered portrait of a career woman that contemporary Hollywood has given us," and that seems the best summary of her character. Hunter has to walk a fine line, portraying a career-driven woman who also longs for a relationship without falling into the numerous stereotypical pitfalls that await nearly all depictions of such characters in Hollywood. But Hunter pulls it off; rather than play Jane as bitchy, Hunter brings out the social awkwardness and stress of Jane and how her work is both the cause and product of these traits. Hunter is a hilarious crier—she pulls her whole face back as if trying to squeeze her tear ducts shut, afraid that tears might give her away only to end up a moaning, warped wreck who looks like she's having a seizure—but her comically exaggerated sobs belie a wracked misery of the incessant demands of her job and the feelings for Tom she wishes to suppress and further explore. Brooks didn't write Jane to be simply the opposite of the stereotypes but to delve into the complex emotions that ultimately settle into broad types.

For all its written and even physical comedy, Broadcast News hits hardest when it lets its triumvirate subsume the commentary into their deeply felt drama. A journalistic strand of pessimism hangs over the whole affair—when a professionally and personally satisfied Tom good-naturedly asks Aaron "What do you do when real life exceeds your wildest dreams?" Aaron hisses back "Keep it to yourself." Some might consider that dour view to extend to the coda, placed seven years into the future and settling the love triangle in a way sure to please no one. Yet the ending deals with the very cinematic construction of the rom-com love triangle in a very earthly, relatable way: love doesn't exist in a vacuum, and the same careers that help and hinder the advances of the three continue to affect their personal lives. Admittedly, I wanted the pat ending, if only because Albert Brooks reminded so much of a personal crush I had on a friend that years later I'd still settle for a facile vicarious victory. But the real, human conclusion to the film only cements it as Brooks' best, funniest yet most poignant movie, and the best journalism movie to say something about more than just the occupation.


  1. This is one James L. Brooks film I never cared much for Jake, but I recognize I am in the minority. I found it as light and as forgettable inn its own way as the recent UP IN THE AIR. But I can why you feel it was telling in a number of ways. Excellent review as always.

  2. Strange you feel that way, Sam. I'm pretty much the opposite; this is the one time I don't feel like Brooks is just hitting sitcom marks (that's part of the reason I sometimes want to attribute it to Albert Brooks instead; it doesn't hit as hard as one of his films but the usual JLB hindrances don't apply here).

  3. Your review is so good! It's great that you were able to draw from your journalism background on this (although it sounds like you got a little burnt out). And I love that Jack Nicholson is this godlike character for everyone, since the plot is largely career-driven.

  4. Yeah, I had a really tough semester this spring, and job prospects aren't improving my disposition. But my networking has proven I'm not the only pessimist by far (I don't know how the average journalist can get people to open up; more than half the ones I've met are cynical and neurotic lol). What surprised me is that so many of the ethical situations it brings up are now de rigeur for journos; that scene where Aaron and some co-workers offer what-if scenarios to test their ethics? Teachers ask us almost the exact same questions ALL THE TIME, and it's funny that most of us say no when the professors are like, "No, you should run the hell out of that."

    I love the classic journalism films, but I think this one finds maybe the best balance between genuine drive for the truth, self-centered ambition, and optimistic pessimism. A lot of the classics side with the optimism, while stuff like Ace in the Hole is all about the dark side. Brooks gets a lot of the conflicting feelings, all the more surprising given how simplistic he is most of the time.

  5. I watched this for the first time a few weeks ago, and I thought it had some particularly terrific moments, but also that it's weighed down by some typical '80s cheesiness.

    The scenes that work best for me are the two broadcasts. What I admire about the film is that even if Tom is the devil, the film doesn't reduce him to Just a Pretty Face. He isn't serious like Aaron -- then again, who is? -- but there's more to him than we first understand. He's got an ease in that chair, juggling information, maintaining his composure, even though the words aren't his. There's a grace in that, and the film gives us room to appreciate it.

    Likewise, the film also makes clear that Aaron truly doesn't have what it takes to be in front of a camera -- and not just because he doesn't look like an ex-jock. Aaron's complaints have validity. His anger and jealousy are real. But the film doesn't stack the deck so much in his favor that we can't recognize his faults and his role in his own self-destruction.

    And yet, the thing that bothers me most about this film is that it tries to make Aaron be a guy who is overlooked but never gives him a chance to blend in. Everyone knows Aaron is the smartest guy in the room. It's hard to feel too bad for that guy, even if he doesn't get the girl. The film wants us to believe that Aaron is as awkward as he says he is. When in reality he's just fixated on what he doesn't have -- an anchor job and a pretty woman. And lots of people don't have that or the respect of those around them.

  6. Great review.

    I just saw it for the first time, and wrote at length about it and it's relation to Network and The Mary Tyler Moore Show: