CLASSICS: Broadcast News

Broadcast News
Directed by: James L. Brooks
Written by: James L. Brooks (screenplay)
Starring: Holly Hunter, Albert Brooks, William Hurt and Joan Cusack

From a modern perspective, this monologue by Albert Brooks in the last third of James L. Brooks’ Broadcast News is cringe-inducing, because it became true:

“What do you think the Devil is going to look like if he’s around? Nobody is going to be taken in if he has a long, red, pointy tail. No. I’m semi-serious here. He will look attractive and he will be nice and helpful and he will get a job where he influences a great God-fearing nation and he will never do an evil thing… he will just bit by little bit lower standards where they are important. Just coax along flash over substance… Just a tiny bit. And he will talk about all of us really being salesmen. And he’ll get all the great women. ”

Switch the channel to any major network if you don’t believe me.  Brooks’ legacy will always be as one of the legendary writers and producers of The Simpsons, but never has he been so keenly insightful as he was in Broadcast News.  Woven into a workplace love story is a sharply comedic indictment of the then-shifting paradigm of network news.

What Brooks tried to do here was create a portrait of an industry on the brink.  In the beginning, we travel with insecure news reporter Aaron (Albert Brooks) and the spunky producer Jane (Holly Hunter) to South America to film a report on guerrilla warfare.  Later, Jane will aid Tom (William Hurt) in a nauseating non-news piece on date rape.

Tom and Aaron are the shifting standards, Tom being the devil referred to in the earlier monologue.  Too dumb to understand the news, he decides that he must start putting himself into each story; selling the idea of himself.  Aaron, although he can be unbearably childish about things, is “the good guy.”

Stuck in the middle of all this is Jane, the news producer prone to pushing deadlines and outbursts of crying when left alone.  This was Holly Hunter’s first big role, and it deservedly made her a star.  She puts every ounce of feeling into Jane, embodying warmth, rage and anxiety into a short but lethal package.  All Jane is worried about is ethically telling whatever story she’s currently working on.  She’s damn good at her job, though what exactly that job is is always shifting.

The key to understanding Jane is this: she is married to her work like so many (lesser) rom-com heroines.  Once you know that, it’s not so hard to realize that by the end of the movie she will choose neither Tom nor Aaron.  Broadcast News‘ love triangle is a sly joke and almost an after-thought; there are genuine feelings being exchanged by all three of the main characters, but they can never come to fruition because careers come first in this world.

All of the major scenes from a romantic movie are replaced with the work environment, as other critics have also noted.  The “sex” scene between Jane and Tom is that taut, brilliantly-paced breaking news story about the Middle East where he is anchoring for the first time.  She whispers in his ear through an earpiece, and the camera switches between over-the-shoulder shots of her looking down at him and him looking up at her.  Afterwards, Tom even remarks how their work rhythm was like great sex.

Though it is billed as a love story, the movie it most immediately recalls is Sidney Lumet’s Network.  In a way, Broadcast News is a more comedic, more emotionally warm take on that 70s milestone.  It’s tempting to categorize it as satire, but it rises above that and becomes a great story with heavy satirical elements.  None of the characters are caricatures, though, and the comedy is very human.  There are moments when you will sympathize with all three of the main characters, even Tom.  Brooks is definitely making a statement, but he’s making it with fully-developed people.

Aaron, Tom and Jane are wonderfully unique characters, each with their own distinct voice.  This is thanks to the three fantastic lead performances working in conjunction with this legendary screenplay.  Brooks has a terrific ear for conversational rhythm, and he paces each scene almost perfectly.  The way Jane talks with Aaron has the feel of a long-term friendship, while her conversations with Tom feel more conflicted, like she’s not quite sure about him and may never be.  It’s a writers’ sense of reality in that these three people could never be so exceptionally clever in real life, but since it takes place in a world of frantic creativity, it works wonderfully.

Being unaware of the current media news climate- its incessant emotional pandering, its constant editorializing- will almost completely take the sting out of Broadcast News.  For those who see it, though, its impact is somewhat depressing.  It’s like watching a prophecy that already came true, one that changed a medium that had the potential for so much good.  The standards were lowered, and the message muddled.

Brooks didn’t forecast the 24-hour news cycle, which further debased news by producing so much content that people don’t even really know what it is.  However, he did see where it was heading, with the emotionally-driven unimportant filler and the selling of an image over that of a story.  By humanizing The Devil and making him a self-aware idiot, he has shown us that destruction comes not in the hands of evil masterminds, but in those of good-looking, egotistical idiots unknowingly given a pulpit.

Check out the other films in our “Classics” series:

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5 thoughts on “CLASSICS: Broadcast News

  1. Lovely to see more love for this brilliant film which (as you say) while disguises itself as a romance is really a commentary on the downward spiral of journalistic standards.

    When I can get a job writing for a newspaper you ought to know things are bad :P.

  2. Sidney Lumet’s Network (1976) is a savage commentary on Trash TV. Peter Finch is Howard Beale, a veteran newsman for the mythical United Broadcasting System, who cracks when he is told that he will be fired after a quarter of a century on the air. He can’t handle the situation and tells his audience that he intends to commit suicide on his final broadcast the following week. Ratings go straight through the roof, and his fan mail comes in by the carload. On the night he plans to put a gun to his head, Finch relents, apologizes to the millions watching (it’s his largest audience ever), and stands up like a Messiah to shout “go to your nearest window and yell as loud as you can, ‘I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”‘ His audience does just that. Faye Dunaway is Diana Christensen, a programming executive at UBS, knows how to exploit this, so she signs Finch to a weekly show in which he can let it all hang out. This idea is opposed by William Holden, the man in charge of network news and an old pal of Finch. He can see that Finch is on the edge of insanity and he can’t stand the thought of the news being used to further ratings. Dunaway’s bosses like the idea and fire Holden for his disagreement. Finch’s program, a melange of various items, goes on and is a smash hit. Dunaway, now a star at the network, has other innovations in mind. She intends doing a show about urban guerrillas, but instead of hiring actors, she wants the terrorists to play themselves. Network gives us several superb scenes, including one in which the communist guerrillas’ lawyers argue with the network’s representatives over the ancillary rights and syndication money that will accrue from their show. There’s an amazing display of acting talent, even though Lumet doesn’t quite tie all the strands together. Finch’s spouting is impressive, but I prefer Holden’s sardonic edge, even if his big speeches seem the most predictably written.

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  5. Jane is playing hardball in the control room, softball at the conference and ping-pong in the hotel. Don’t you just love her ability to roll with the changes? Jane has been solid as a rock for a long time now…

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