Broadcast News (1987, James L. Brooks)

!!! A+ FILM !!!

“I just wanna be alone right now.”
“It’s okay. I’ll go with you.”

James L. Brooks is a maverick humanist, if a deeply skeptical one, which means that his carefully detailed work seems autobiographical even when it almost certainly isn’t. A master of both restraint and bruising humanity, he consistently creates comedy that stings; his career began in the 1960s with the seriocomic, socially progressive high school series Room 222 and stretched all the way through a co-domination (with Norman Lear’s work) of the 1970s sitcom via The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Taxi, both of which have aged more gracefully than almost any other television of their time, and of course The Simpsons, probably the ultimate game-changing tentpole of TV history. In between all of that, Brooks initiated a film career with the Burt Reynolds vehicle Starting Over (directed by Alan J. Pakula) and his own directorial debut, the deservedly celebrated Larry McMurtry adaptation Terms of Endearment. Even with that pedigree, however, Broadcast News is his masterpiece and his most durable, complete work as both a screenwriter and a champion of actors. Looking over his script, which has the creative wind at its back in the same way Joseph Mankiewicz’s for All About Eve does, one gets the sense that this was the story that was nagging at him to be passionately brought to fruition, and the logically perfect use of the influx of credibility and financial security brought forth by Terms. There has been no point since 1987 when it would have been ideal for Brooks to make a film like this, and he made that opportunity count.

Brooks’ original background, before he began writing scripted shows, was in TV news, and the show that really made his name — MTM — was a farcical account of daily life in the newsroom of a local station. But in making a film on the subject of network news he spent several years after the release of Terms researching the business, interviewing others who’d worked in it in more recent years, questioning them on their work and its interference with their personal lives; and while Brooks spends years laying similar groundwork for all of his films, it was never handier than in this case, with the result that seemingly every exhibited nuance, behavior or event feels truthful, with some basis in life that has been legitimately lived. Nothing in the script comes across as arbitrary or weakly justified; in this regard Broadcast News is among the most completely believable of all Hollywood films. That said, Brooks can hardly be accused of merely aggregating others’ experiences for his own benefit. The three characters who populate the bulk of the film are his own perceptive creations, and so fully realized are the portrayals of these principals — thanks both to Brooks and his staggering cast — that the audience identifies deeply with all of them even as they clash violently. It goes beyond even his skill with harnessing these performances, however; accused as often as his antecedent Billy Wilder of being a visually lazy director, Brooks takes inspiration from television itself and his knowledge of that world to place the viewer as a fly on the wall, intimately exploring the process and the people involved.

One of the few senses in which Broadcast News could be accused of being mired in the 1980s, apart from the usual caveats about fashion and technology that don’t and shouldn’t count, is one that time has eventually shown to be a repeatedly reoccurring concept in our capitalist society: the notion of living to work. These people’s personal lives are almost irrevocably intertwined with what they do for a living, which requires so much of them during even their leisure hours that it seems as if they are incapable of any sustained variety of relaxation. Much of this comes from reality: scheduled crying sessions, drinking oneself to sleep over problems at the office, fighting tooth and nail for a level of status that means prolonged security, and the shrinking of one’s scope of social contacts until it almost exclusively includes the people one sees at work and work-related functions. This was a visible, even glamorized trend in the ’80s — even the satiric, surreal detective series Moonlighting built its entire premise on the idea of the cloistered, incestuous office — but news stories cheerfully reporting about teenagers forced to work fast food jobs with neck braces on, or ads glorying the so-called “gig economy” strongly suggest that the film’s unstated central issue of people running themselves ragged even in white-collar, professional environments to the detriment of their own emotional stability and inner life (or even just “avoiding time alone,” as Roger Ebert put it in his review) remains depressingly relevant.

It’s important to add that this lifestyle critique doesn’t direct any derision toward one of the three central characters, Jane, for being — in the parlance of the time — a “career woman.” Although the film spends the bulk of its time on interpersonal relationships, it also takes feminism as a given and makes nothing of Jane’s status or competence. The only sense in which her gender is a factor at all, apart from a note in the dialogue late in the narrative that she’s the first woman to become one of the network’s bureau chiefs, is that the other two central characters are interested in her romantically. (And they think with their hearts and loins no less than she does.) Jane’s brought to life as a brilliant producer with fire and dedication behind her eyes, who works carefully to make her imbalance of personal need with outrageous career commitment seem outwardly healthy, to the extent that (as we witness near the end of the film when much of the newsroom is laid off) others view her as a model to follow as they trudge home to try to explain everything to their spouses, the irony of this only evident to her and to us.

As for the specific type of work in which these people are embroiled, the film to which Broadcast News is inevitably compared most often is of course Sidney Lumet and Paddy Chayefsky’s classic satire Network, made a decade earlier and routinely described as one of the most prophetic works of American satire from the twentieth century. Lumet’s film relies on stagy overstatement, wild and over the top; Brooks’ identifiably takes place, apart from a few scattered moments of slapstick or farce, in our own world. Two of the characters in particular are concerned, in fact, with the very state of the business predicted by Network: that TV news is gradually becoming schlocky, frivolous entertainment rather than an important source of information. Within a decade, this transition would be complete; within two, network news would scarcely be relevant at all in the even more punishing 24-hour cycle; within three, American journalism would have finally become a gigantic gag that everyone was in on, a communication service for the forces of oppression. Broadcast News captures, as one character describes it in a formal speech, another in a confessional moment, the early incremental steps inescapably requiring this conclusion, from airtime given to domino tricks to a pretty-faced anchor with no experience writing or editing.

However, these questions and attacks wouldn’t carry much weight if the actual body of Broadcast News were not made to seem so real and to have all the weight of actual adults coping with daily problems; in fact, in this too one can see the deficiencies of the culture we wake up and look at every day, at a time when it’s unfathomable that the studio the size of 20th Century Fox would bankroll and campaign for a movie that’s simply about grown people talking to one another. That, of course, is a reductive description, at least until you make the operative distinction between characters and people, which is what these are. William Hurt is wonderfully vivid as Tom, a handsome, well-meaning but slightly oafish newsman who took a fast track from local sports to major network reporting on the basis largely of his appearance and is fatally unsure of himself — he bellyaches about this to an unimpressed Holly Hunter in their first few scenes together — but is a celebrity around the newsroom when he starts appearing on the air and can suddenly do no wrong. He also is a calculating, occasionally nasty and condescending agent of destruction mostly unconscious of how far his own empty privilege has taken him, too easily hurt by accurate assessments of his shortcomings, and all too ready to harness his own advantages in unfair ways or to indulge himself in denying empathy to others, as seen when he shrugs at the layoffs and talks about having seen it all over and over again, immune. Seen variously as a vapid prep and as a quietly cunning charlatan, he exhibits insecurity and understanding of others’ case against him — that he has no serious knowledge of what he does, that he’s all surface-level style — that almost anyone who’s struggled, justified or not, with impostor syndrome will understand, particularly during the early scene in which he scrambles for the right words to compensate for all this while attempting to court Hunter.

She is Jane, the hotheaded producer who would slice Mary Richter to bits and probably Lou Grant as well. She decries the dumbing down of her field; Tom represents this in almost perfect human form. So it’s inconvenient when she finds herself, gradually and after many out-of-hand dismissals, falling in love with him. Embodied magnificently by Hunter, with a wisdom and liveliness that are irreducibly impressive, Jane comes to feel like a person you might know, someone you would admire from a careful distance and privately wish to become. She deserves such accolades even as the script and Hunter don’t shy away from exploring her faults and darkness, her struggles with isolation and single-minded, meddlesome perfectionism. Is it, after all, correct or commendable that she lashes out at Tom for a lack of education and training (“at least I’m upset about it, fooolks,” she mocks him, unforgettably) when he is clearly reaching out for her guidance? Does any well-adjusted person turn on such a dime from serenity to overheated, tempestuous anger, as we witness more than once? In one horrifying moment she accidentally lays into Tom when his father is present — and from her later responses we know that she as much as Tom is conscious of her own mistakes, and wants in some ways to break away from what she at one point calls her conservatism. Tom symbolizes not only an attractive man who repeatedly indicates a strong interest in her but also a covert opportunity for her to demonstrate a purging or softening of principles she’s beginning to worry are too staid to be malleable within her chosen industry’s environment (although ultimately, these warring impulses are put to the test at the film’s climax and her integrity carries the day).

Such a softening is never demonstrated by the third, funniest and least self-aware major character, Aaron, portrayed by Albert Brooks in what could be the most galvanizing of the three performances, though it’s difficult to really put any of them above the rest. He is Jane’s best friend, and he loves her. (It seems crucial to note, by the way, that this isn’t a “love triangle” because Jane never shows any interest in being with Aaron, so she’s not “choosing between” them as PR copy so often alleges.) Their obvious rapport gives the sense of a long, complicated history; by the time we join them their friendship is at the stage when they are so much an outlet to one another that Jane, just before hanging up the phone after a conversation with Aaron, advises “Call if you get weird,” really the ultimate expression of the kind of best friend everyone needs, within or outside of a career. Holly and Albert Brooks (referred throughout this essay by his full name to avoid confusion with the director, no relation) play this perfectly, especially when the peaceful, cathartic relationship hits the interference of Aaron’s unrequited love for Jane, and the intrusion of Tom into their world. Jane hates Tom before Aaron does, meeting him at an unsuccessful speech she gives to local anchors decrying exactly the kind of superficial news Tom’s existence is destined to indicate, but when Aaron finds liberation in openly mocking him and his lack of knowledge about the news he is (or isn’t) reporting, it’s eventually hard to tell how much of his hatred is born of principles, how much of jealousy.

In some ways it’s a very simple, familiar dynamic — we initially see Tom and Aaron as children, Tom a cute-as-a-button tyke who gets bad grades, Aaron a hard-working, socially pathetic early valedictorian. The out-of-place dork in us can’t help but enjoy Aaron’s attempts to cut Tom down, his open demonstrations of how vastly superior he is as a journalist, and we may even chuckle when he’s clearly taking this too far, as when he makes derisive, dismissive comments toward a piece Tom turns in on date rape. (By the way: despite what at least one New York writer recently argued, Broadcast News does not side with Aaron on this issue; Brooks is careful to show the others in the newsroom express disgust with his comment that Tom “blew the lid off nookie.”) Brooks takes pleasure in smashing the two of them together in uncomfortable scenarios, especially when Tom trains Aaron on playing to the camera. But the great achievement of the script is that both of these men are underdogs, as is Jane, and as Brooks would later explain, the “guy who’s right” (meaning Aaron) is less sympathetic than the one who’s “defiling the profession.”

I must break in at this point, however, and bring up an aspect of Broadcast News that requires me to be more personal than usual in this space. When I first saw Broadcast News — purchased on VHS at a pawn shop wholly because of my love of The Simpsons and As Good as It Gets — I thought I was Aaron. In retrospect the issue was more that I wanted to be Aaron. First of all, Albert Brooks is such a charismatic and sensitive comic actor and this was only my second real encounter with him, and at 14 or 15 how could I not be taken with him? Aaron is the perfect adult equivalent to the enraged adolescent who sees the entire world as unfair. Seeing the film now, I realize that this is intentional, that quite apart from his virtues as a man who’s brave in his career and admirably sharp-tongued, he is a pouting man-child and a classic Nice Guy, and that this is his great flaw immediately circumventing any possibility that he will become selfless enough for Jane to ever respond in kind to his affections. And when he sits in a diner, lets himself boil over and exposes Jane, like others before her, to the full scope of his petty, selfish anger, we can see through Albert Brooks’ eyes the emptiness in Aaron’s heart. The older I get, the more disturbed I am that I once thought of Aaron as the character in all of film that I identified with the most — even if much of this was just born of being envious of his wit, of his harnessing of his pain as a laugh-a-minute cross to bear, and of the actual joy he seemed to derive from being put-upon, and even though I saw directly through the manipulative actions of similar but less acerbic characters like Duckie in Pretty in Pink. That Aaron is something of a snide prick is not a weakness of the film — it’s a perfect articulation of its brilliance and complexity, as is my (and I suspect many other viewers’, especially young men’s) evolving awareness of who he really is. (The same principle applies to Alvy Singer in Annie Hall, a funny, neurotic, delightful loser who seems more the intended sociopathic jerkass the more times one sees that film — which has made me love it more, not less.)

An operative difference between Aaron and the everyday Nice Guy archetype is that neither Brooks smooths over Aaron’s edges; indeed, they allow us to look into the face of a neurotic person and watch him periodically unleash his contempt, letting the mask slip. And we become aware that Aaron’s “wanting more” from a friend whose obvious care for him should be a thrilling and fulfilling presence in his life is less about love and more about a misguided sense of justice: Aaron’s hard work and long-suffering nature entitles him to, in the words I’m sure he would use, “get the girl.” I suspect this too is one reason I once found him so compelling; I was quite familiar at that age with wishing a long-running friendship with an extremely intelligent and vibrant person was “more.” I suspect there are very few people in the world who’ve never experienced this with a close friend, and it’s not an automatically destructive gesture; in fact it’s to Aaron’s credit that he’s very direct about his feelings, but less so that he spends almost the entirety of the film in complete denial of her response. There’s also the uncomfortable truth that Aaron has a monopoly on the most beautifully composed, stirring, fiery speeches in Brooks’ script. One example fully deserves to be printed in full, here or anywhere: “I know you care about him. I’ve never seen you like this with anybody, so don’t get me wrong when I tell you that Tom, while being a very nice guy, is the devil. What do you think the Devil’s going to look like? Come on. No one’s going to be taken in by a guy with a long, red, pointy tail… No, he’ll be attractive, he’ll be nice and helpful. He’ll get a job where we’ll influence a great and God-fearing nation. He’ll never do an evil thing. He’ll never deliberately hurt a living thing. He’ll just, bit by little bit, lower our standards where they’re important. Just a tiny little bit. Just coax along flash over substance. Just a tiny little bit. He’ll talk about all of us really being salesmen. And he’ll get all the great women.”

The truth is that I still relate to Aaron. I don’t especially want to feel underappreciated in my career and like I sometimes want to cut down the preconceptions, opinions and fixations of people around me, but I do. An extrapolation from that is that what has made Broadcast News so repeatedly rewarding to me — when I had cable, it was one of two films (with Jaws, another masterpiece driven by a robust three-character dynamic) that I could never turn off if I happened upon it at the halfway point, even if there were commercials — is that all three of these characters are among those I find most realistic and sympathetic in the entirety of modern cinema. Moreover, Hunter, Hurt and Brooks — all of whom have been terrific in other films — are forever marked with these characters for me. They occupy these personalities to such an extent that I always see their Broadcast News counterparts when I find them in other works, and I believe I always will. And I see myself in them. That’s not to say they’re at all like me; they’re more ambitious, more assertive, more professional, and more dedicated — it’s just a mark of the sophistication and intricacy of Brooks’ writing and of the three performances. You understand why they hate one another when they do, which is often, but you also feel a kinship with each of them. It would be easy enough for Brooks to just write a headstrong careerist woman, a wisecracking fall guy, and a vapid pretty-boy, but the doubts and insecurities of even the “vapid pretty boy” have astonishing resonance; this dynamic and its destiny of being only a temporary diversion in these lives is visualized impeccably by Brooks’ tendency to place the three of them on different vertical levels in his various locations and sets. We learn, at the finale of the movie, just how much this means.

It seems unjust not to mention the supporting cast, who are in the shadows of the major players but still add such flavor and life as to be inextricable from the main body of the film — Joan Cusack’s editorial assistant is a vivid creation blessed with the movie’s biggest comedic setpiece, when she races through the hallways clutching a tape that needs to be transmitted in the next few seconds; she practically engulfs the much shorter Holly Hunter when they hug, and it’s a memorable and humane image in a film that sometimes seems so dominated by cold professional relationships and the attendant doublespeak, though even their goodbye has a sting: “Except for socially,” she tells Jane, “you’re my role model.” Jack Nicholson has an appropriate cameo as the nightly news anchor, a part that requires an intimidating gravity that only an actor of his stature can really offer. Lois Chiles (ex-Bond girl, otherwise largely stuck in garbage) figures in one of the film’s best, cruelest gags when her reporter begins an affair with Tom only to be reassigned by Jane to a serial killer trial in Alaska. Salty character actor Robert Prosky gives warmth and grace to the part of the Washington bureau chief, and former NBC reporter Peter Hackes makes his acting debut as the head of the network’s news department, but some of the strongest and most human moments come from the smallest of these roles, the video editor Bobby portrayed by Christian Clemenson, who wrings so much from his very brief screen time; my heart swells every time he thanks Tom for being the first person ever to ask his opinion of a certain cut.

The scenes in the newsroom are far more riveting (and humorous) than anything you’ll ever see in the eponymous urgent facility of ER: Jane barking orders to everyone, including Tom through an earpiece as he goes on the air for the first time; Aaron bowing as weekend anchor for the first time and suffering a huge bout of nervous sweat just as the cameras roll, with complete disaster ensuing, the ramshackle nature of the stage abruptly visible; the drama of a reporter manipulating footage to change outward impression of a scene he captures, forcing himself to cry for the camera; the layoffs, the anger, the sense of loss — “Is there anything I can do for you?” “Well, I certainly hope you’ll die soon.” Parties persist with work and the insecurities that run rampant in the office never far away. During a live broadcast to which expert Aaron is pointedly not invited, he tries to move past the slight but can’t keep the TV off and ends up providing unpaid help to Jane remotely. “I say it here, it comes out there,” he says to himself ruefully. Indeed, Broadcast News was marketed and even reviewed as a workplace film, but its reach extends so much further; there are so many conversations in this movie that I feel like I have had, and relationships (and their endings) that I feel like I have gone through. And I don’t think it’s anything to do with me — I think that’s just the way the movie’s built. Moreover, Brooks never cheats to punctuate the moment; he lets the dialogue and the actors do all the work.

Brooks also does not sacrifice the film’s integrity for the pat conclusion that mainstream audiences undoubtedly enter it expecting. The finale of Broadcast News is possibly my favorite ending of any film. After the crying incident, wherein Aaron discovers that Tom had faked tears for the camera on one of his earliest stories, drives a wedge between Tom and Jane, she snubs a trip she’d planned to take with him. She taxis right back into the Washington octopus. Tom’s being transferred to London, and Aaron has quit; the last meeting between Aaron and Jane is heartbreaking, the former deliberately underplaying the moment and filling it with unnecessary insults. We rejoin them seven years later, when a newly engaged Tom’s giving a speech about his new job as nightly anchor but not head writer. Aaron, now married, comes to shake his hand and cast further shade in his former adversary’s direction; he has a kid now, who’s been trained to call Tom “the Big Joke.” The three of them go to a park to join Jane, who’s decided to work for Tom’s newscast but has clearly moved on from this tumultuous period and, as the script puts it, she and Aaron and Tom can find themselves at ease again but won’t be recapturing their former intimacy, in any combination. The film collapses into the shape of a TV screen at that moment, tentative and unresolved, old questions and wants permanently unanswered and unfulfilled; it more effectively and realistically captures the fleeting, temporary nature of most relationships than almost any other film. It spurns the very idea of satisfying its audience in any sense, refusing to compromise in any direction besides what would be the most probable outcome of the situation depicted, but that doesn’t mean those final scenes don’t positively ache with longing and missed opportunity… on the part of the viewer if not the characters, whose ability to move forward seems unquestioned even as the slightest tinges of resentment bubble upward from all three. People move on, some scars stay and others go. But in the very final moment, when Aaron’s son races enthusiastically toward Tom as he leaves, it’s one final kissoff, a refusal by the writer-director to come even close to making things simple.

The cheapening of TV news is still a hot topic, and some will probably now view the central flash versus substance conflict of Broadcast News as adorably quaint, the ultimate offense of faking a reporter’s tears on tape now so mild as to be laughable. But at least the film correctly foresees the apathy with which such an incident would be received. When Jane tells Tom “You could get fired for things like that,” his response is “I got promoted for things like that.” It’s in this way that Brooks’ dialogue — pages and pages of wonderful quotes too numerous to try and get a handle on in this space; just watch the damn movie again — overcomes any dated aspects of the story he’s telling. As years pass, the grander truths of the story itself overcome the specific circumstances of network news in 1987; like Network, the film has now become allegorical, and only the stronger for it. At the 60th Academy Awards, Broadcast News had seven nominations and won not a single award, a distinction that now seems astonishing. The films it lost to include The Last Emperor, Moonstruck (for its writing and for Cher rather than Hunter as lead actress, both deplorable choices), Wall Street (Michael Douglas’ buffoonery over Hurt’s most sensitive, fully realized performance) and most infamously The Untouchables (Albert Brooks was widely regarded as the favorite against this largely silly turn by the mediocre Sean Connery). None of these films seem nearly so relevant or so fondly remembered now, and none if newly encountered are likely to imbue the same duty of championship in their audiences. Broadcast News is truly a special, singular experience whose depth and layering allow it to hold up to numerous viewings, and you come away wishing far more movies, modern and otherwise, felt nearly so complete and so honest in their explorations of people who become, however briefly, a part of our own lives.


[Includes scattered excerpts of my writings about the film from 2004 and 2005.]

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