Friday, May 5, 2017

Broadcast News

After the success of the Academy Award-winning Terms of Endearment (1983), writer/director James L. Brooks spent a few years researching and writing what is possibly his most personal film to date: Broadcast News (1987). Drawing from his years in television, including a stint at CBS News, he took a spot-on look at the ethics of journalism and filtered it through a love triangle between people who work at a network affiliate T.V. station. In short, Brooks’ film is the Bull Durham (1988) of journalism films – smart, funny, insightful and even poignant in the way it looks at the people who deliver us the news on our T.V. screens every night. In some ways, Broadcast News anticipated the dumbing down of televised news so that now there is a whole generation of people who prefer The Daily Show, satirizing today’s top stories, over watching the real thing on the major networks or CNN.

Tom Grunick (William Hurt) is a slightly dimwitted hunk that aspires to be a hard-hitting investigative journalist but is clearly suited to be a news anchorman. Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks) is a super-smart news reporter that lacks on-screen charisma – basically the polar opposite of Tom. The object of their affection is Jane Craig (Holly Hunter), an intelligent control freak and T.V. news producer. She finds herself attracted to Aaron, her intellectual equal, but drawn also to Tom’s hunky good looks. At some point, she must make up her mind and decide who is worth loving and who isn’t right for her.

I like how we see these people at work, like the scene where Jan edits Aaron’s newstory under a tight deadline. With only a few minutes left she wants to insert a Norman Rockwell painting into it with a new voiceover. While this is going on Joan Cusack’s co-worker is freaking out because she has to deliver the finished video tape to the control room. With seconds to go she makes a mad dash through the studio that is simultaneously tense and hilarious. It is all worth it when the story airs and everyone gets a sense of satisfaction because it worked and their co-workers let them know. This sequence shows the comradery that exists between these people. They care about the stories they’re trying to tell and really want to make a difference.

Broadcast News is a film of its time, capturing the state of flux that network news was in. Early on, Brooks lays out his views of what’s happening to T.V. news at a conference Jane is speaking at. While she warns of their profession being in danger, people talk amongst themselves or get up and leave forcing her to skip over topics, like trends involving magazine shows and news as profit. Her biggest reaction comes from showing a clip of an elaborate display of dominoes that all the networks showed in favor of an important government policy change. This scene warns of a future that has now happened, making Brooks’ film quite prescient.

As is customary with Brooks’ films, there are some spot-on observations about relationships, like when Aaron says to Jane at one point, “Wouldn’t this be a great world if insecurity and desperation made us more attractive? If needy were a turn-on?” It’s funny because it’s true. In addition to witty dialogue, Broadcast News also has its moments of hilarious physical comedy, like the classic scene where Joan Cusack races through the newsroom to get a taped news story to the control room seconds before it is supposed to air. There are little moments as well, like, en route, where she accidently bangs into a water fountain that makes this sequence so funny to watch.

In a wonderful bit of then casting against type, William Hurt plays a good-looking blank slate of a person. Tom means well and really tries to understand the things Jane and Aaron say but he just doesn’t get it and is unable to articulate himself properly. I love the scene early on where he admits his short-comings to her: “I can talk well enough and I’m not bad at making contact with people but I don’t like the feeling that I’m pretending to be a reporter. And half the time I don’t get the news that I’m talking about.” Hurt does an excellent job in this scene as Tom tries to articulate his flaws as a reporter. He’s confident and well-paid while also showing a refreshing self-awareness of his flaws. He just doesn’t know how to fix them. Hurt could have easily played his character’s shallowness for laughs but there is an earnestness there that is endearing but this disappears as he becomes more savvy in his profession.

Fresh from her hilarious turn in the Coen brothers’ Raising Arizona (1987), Holly Hunter is ideally cast as the chatty Jane, a person who says exactly what she means even if it hurts someone else’s feelings. She is the kind of person that picks up five different newspapers during her morning power walk (and you know she reads them all before work). She’s an obsessive micromanager, which hides her insecurities tied to her love life. She’s the best at what she does for a living but her love life is a mess, pining for clueless pretty boy Tom while oblivious to how much Aaron loves her. Yet, Hunter also shows Jane’s vulnerable side – her awkwardness when it comes to personal relationships.

Albert Brooks nails the smug, smartass qualities that Aaron possesses and how it masks his insecurities when it comes to his romantic feelings for Jane. He clearly loves her but can’t find a way to get past that “best friend” stage of their relationship. That’s really how they work best – chatting with each other on the phone first thing in the morning and again before they go to sleep at night. Brooks excels at playing a brilliant reporter that lacks interpersonal skills and is publicly humiliated twice during the course of the film. The first time is minor – the national news anchor (played with perfect smug condescension by Jack Nicholson) calls Jane to compliment her on a story she and Aaron worked on together without acknowledging him. Brooks plays it for a significantly uncomfortable beat and this foreshadows the second, more memorable time when Aaron reads the news on air and is stricken with the most extreme case of flop sweat (one co-worker comments dryly, “This is more than Nixon ever sweated.”).

Aaron resents Tom for several reasons. He doesn’t like how success comes easy to the good-looking man while Aaron has to work his ass off and still doesn’t get recognized. Mostly, he’s jealous of Tom’s relationship with Jane because he loves her and doesn’t think this other guy, who just waltzes in and dazzles her, is right for her. Aaron is bitter because he is always second choice in his personal and professional lives. He resents this as he’s smarter than Tom but has a whiff of desperation when talking to women and doesn’t have the unflappable charisma needed to read the news on air. He may be smart but he also makes sure that those around him know it. Then, just when it seems like he’s the most unlikable character of the three, there’s the scene where Aaron all but tells Jane that he loves her and the vulnerability he conveys in that moment is touching.

Brooks does something very unusual with Broadcast News: he manages to get us to care about three unlikable people – a bossy know-it-all, an arrogant prick, and a shallow pretty boy. There are all kinds of throwaway scenes where the three characters are called on their overbearing traits in hilarious/semi-serious fashion, like when the head of the news division (Peter Hackes) disagrees with Jane over having Tom read the national news on air for the first time. She confronts him and says that Tom is not read as if it is fact and he replies, “It must be nice to always believe you know better, to always think you’re the smartest person in the room.” Her response is unexpected. Instead of a witty comeback or angry retort, she quietly and sadly says, “No, it’s awful.” That we care about these characters at all is due in large part to the charisma of Brooks, Hunter and Hurt as well as the superb writing that fleshes out and gives dimension to these characters so that we understand what motivates them and sheds light on their behavior.

From 1964 to 1966, James L. Brooks had been a reporter for CBS News in New York City. He met CBS Evening News senior producer Susan Zirinsky at the 1984 Democratic Convention in San Francisco where the idea for Broadcast News was born. He had originally wanted to make a romantic comedy but attending the convention inspired him to have politics in the background of the film. He came up with three lead characters but “didn’t want the movie to declare its hero. All our effort was to have three characters as co-equals.” He also noticed the technological and stylistic changes in the way T.V. news covered the 1984 convention and saw it as a symptom of the changes in American business.

He spent most of 1985 and 1986 in Washington, D.C. doing research, hanging out at the CBS and NBC news bureaus. He showed up at the Gridiron dinner, the White House Correspondents dinner and the Washington Journalism Review awards and took notes, becoming a reporter again. He also spent weeks hanging out with Zirinsky who started as a technical consultant on the film before becoming an associate producer. In addition, he also hung out with the CBS News employees and it clearly influenced him as the budget cuts and firings in the film mirrored what happened in real life, although he denied it at the time. In doing his research Brooks discovered “this new kind of driven, professional woman out there that fascinated me as much as the changes in the television business.” When he started writing the screenplay he “didn’t like any of the three characters. By the time I was finished, I thought I could enjoy having drinks with all of them.”

In 1985, James L. Brooks told Albert Brooks that he wanted him to play one of the male leads in a romantic comedy about broadcasting. As a result, the comedian had input on the script early on. For example, the scene where Aaron suffers from flop sweat on the air came from real life. Brooks was watching CNN late one night and saw a news anchor sweating profusely. He called James L. Brooks and told him to turn on the channel and check it out. The director ended up putting it in the film.

William Hurt was Brooks’ only choice to play Tom and admitted, “frankly, if he’d said no, I would have canceled the picture,” but he had limited time available for the project and the filmmaker began to worry that he wouldn’t find his leading lady in time. Brooks had spent six months looking for the right actress to play Jane. With the sets built and rehearsals about to begin on Monday, he still hadn’t found the right person. The script found its way to Holly Hunter who read it on Friday, auditioned with Hurt on Saturday and got the part on Sunday, starting rehearsals on Monday.

Brooks hadn’t seen any of Hunter’s previous work. The audition with Hurt began as one scene and ended up being two hours of going through the entire script like a rehearsal. Both Albert Brooks and Hunter researched their roles at the CBS Washington bureau with the latter studying with Zirinsky. In addition, the two actors hung out together to give their on-screen friendship an air of authenticity.

The first cut of Broadcast News ran three hours and twenty-four minutes with Brooks trying to get it down to around two hours. He previewed the film for several audiences with different endings to see what worked best.

Broadcast News received mostly positive reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and wrote, “The tricky thing about Broadcast News – the quality in director James L. Brooks’ screenplay that makes it so special – is that all three characters have a tendency to grow emotionally absent-minded when it’s a choice between romance and work.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “the film’s most brilliant and sobering touch is the brief epilogue that gives it the perspective of time.” The New York Times’ Vincent Canby praised Hurt’s performance: “Mr. Hurt, a most complicated actor, is terrific as a comparatively simple man, someone who’s perfectly aware of his intellectual limitations but who sees no reason for them to interfere with his climb to the top.” However, The Washington Post’s Hal Hinson wrote, “James Brooks is a tricky kind of talent. He’s smart about little things…But when you get right down to it, his insights about television news coverage…aren’t particularly original observations. Brooks is excellent at taking us inside the world of television, but not terribly good at analyzing it.”

Not surprisingly, the film’s depiction of T.V. news divided its real-life counterparts with CBS’ Mike Wallace finding Tom to be an “implausible” anchorman but found the film itself, “very realistic – the ambiance, the egos, the pressure,” while ABC’s Sam Donaldson objected to the film’s view that “good people are pushed out, bubbleheads get rewarded and management are all venal wimps.”

Of all Brooks’ films, Broadcast News is the most successful at merging his T.V. sitcom sensibilities with his cinematic aspirations. His film is not only chock full of truisms about network news but is also an incredibly entertaining and witty romantic comedy that is unafraid to sprinkle moments of compelling drama throughout. Brooks not only manages to say something about the relationships between men and women but also how it intertwines with their work in a way that escapist fare from the 1980s, like Baby Boom (1987) and Working Girl (1988), didn’t quite zero in on as well.

Partway through Broadcast News, Jane and Aaron realize that their way of reporting will eventually be replaced in favor of people like Tom who represents style over substance. This is addressed in a scene where Aaron semi-seriously compares Tom to the Devil:

“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.”

History has proven Aaron right as the Tom Brokaws and Dan Rathers have been replaced by less reliable people. Thanks to the Internet and social media, news reporting has become more immediate and sometimes reported before it can be properly verified, taking the old maxim, “if it bleeds, it leads,” to an extreme. Brooks’ film saw it coming and people used to clickbait headlines and TMZ sensationalism must look at Broadcast News like ancient history. Looked at now, the film is a snapshot of a bygone era.


SOURCES

Gussow, Mel. “James Brooks Launches a Star.” The New York Times. December 13, 1987.

Hall, Jane and Brad Darrach. “The News about Broadcast.” People. February 1, 1988.

Scott, Jay. “Brooks Gives Acerbic Account of TV News.” Globe and Mail. December 4, 1987.

Shales, Tom. “A Hollywood Director Who Loves Washington.” Washington Post. December 13, 1987.

Siskel, Gene. “James Brooks’ Plan? He does it his way.” St. Petersburg Times. January 10, 1988.


Tobias, Scott. “Interview: Albert Brooks.” The A.V. Club. January 18, 2006.

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