Directed by: James L. Brooks.
Written by: James L. Brooks.
Starring: William Hurt (Tom Grunick), Albert Brooks (Aaron Altman), Holly Hunter (Jane Craig), Robert Prosky (Ernie Merriman), Lois Chiles (Jennifer Mack), Joan Cusack (Blair Litton), Peter Hackes (Paul Moore), Christian Clemenson (Bobby), Jack Nicholson (Bill Rorish).
Broadcast News is the type of romantic comedy that Hollywood has forgotten how to make. At its heart is a love triangle – where all three people are fully rounded characters, where either man (or neither) may be the right fit for the female lead. It also has more on its mind than just being a romantic comedy – it doesn’t use its Network news backdrop as simply a backdrop – the way many romantic comedies use their heroine’s job at a New York City Magazine as a way to drop in some colorful characters and an impossibly idealized portrait of her life. In addition to being a romantic comedy, the film is also about the state of the TV news and while it doesn’t have the blistering cynicism of films like A Face in the Crowd, Network or Natural Born Killers it’s certainly not a rosy picture of the industry either. Viewers today – 27 years after its release may think that the film’s view is optimistic by comparison to what they see on the news everyday now – but that just shows how far the industry has fallen in a relatively short period of time.
The film stars Holly Hunter – in one of her first major roles – as Jane Craig, a slightly obsessive and neurotic, but extremely gifted news producer, working in the Washington office of a major network’s news division. Her best friend is Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks) – a reporter for the station who wants to move up – maybe become an anchor – and although he’s smart enough, he also looks, sounds and acts like Albert Brooks – meaning he’s not quite in the Walter Cronkite model of anchor. Tom Grunick (William Hurt) is visually much more of that guy – good looking, charming and a natural on camera. He’s hired to be the new anchor for Craig’s show – despite the very simple fact that he’s not overly bright. He’s not really an idiot, but he doesn’t know what those around him knows – but he says he wants to learn. He started out in the Sports Division, and everyone liked him so much that he keeps getting promotion after promotion after promotion – basically because he’s all style and no substance – which of course makes him the polar opposite of Aaron who is all substance and no style. Of course, because the movie is written and directed by James L. Brooks, he makes the movie a romantic comedy – where both men are in love with Jane. Jane loves Aaron as well – but as a friend, she never really saw him as anything else until he confesses his love for her. But they have so much in common – they make sense together, don’t they? Then there’s Tom, who represents the empty charm that she despises in TV news – but he’s good looking, he’s charming and he shows signs that perhaps one day, with her tutelage of course, he may actually be a good news man.
I’m not going to try and deny that this love triangle is something overly original – it’s basically the prototypical love triangle that has existed since storytelling began, and continues on to today. But I will say that the love triangle works – and works well – because the writing by Brooks is so good, and the performances by the three leads (all of whom received Oscar nominations) are even better. This was that brief span in the 1980s when William Hurt was one of the biggest stars in the world – this was his third straight year getting nominated for an Oscar (following his win for Kiss of the Spider Woman and a nomination for Children of a Lesser God) – and it’s easy to see why he was so popular. He is charming, he is funny and he is good looking. What’s more though is that he makes Tom – who is the hands of a lesser actor may have turned into the object of scorn or ridicule – an easy target for everyone to call a dummy – and makes him somewhat more than that. He is a man who knows his limitations, but is also more of a realist than anyone else who are idealists in a world that is tossing them aside. He’s also, of the three main characters, the one most willing to compromise – to reorganize his life around someone he thinks he may love. In the years since I last saw Broadcast News, I had a slightly different movie in my head than the one it actually is – I was firmly on team Aaron if you will. Watching the film again, I once again loved Brooks in the role – but I don’t see him as the obvious choice anymore. He can be petty – and at times downright cruel – to those around him. It is a brilliant performance by Brooks – that ranks alongside his brief turn in Taxi Driver and his (should have Oscar winning) performance in Drive as the best work he’s done in a movie he didn’t write and direct. The other Brooks, James, obviously wrote the movie to Albert’s strengths – but also gives him a little more depth. For her part, Hunter carries the movie with humor and intelligence. She is in some ways the prototypical feminist character – a smart, capable woman making her way in a male dominated world – but again, Brooks give her a role that is slightly more complicated than that – that at least acknowledges the myth that anyone can really “have it all”. Jane makes choices in this movie as to what to prioritize that seems much more honest than most romantic comedies. Her choice at the end – which apparently some test audiences didn’t like – makes perfect sense, and is in fact the only logical one she could make (an alternate ending on the Criterion Blu-Ray has a scene between her and Hurt, which makes perfect sense from his point of view, and virtually none from hers).
Through the entire movie, although Brooks himself says he saw more as a character driven romantic comedy than a portrait of the news, the film is still able to present a believable world in TV news – one where the constant threat of cutbacks looms large, and people see it more as a entertainment than simply the news. The movie, I think, acknowledges that while style is important to a certain extent – Brooks makes a lousy anchor, while Tom makes a great one – that we still need the smart people behind the scenes ensuring that people actually get the important news they need – and not just a series of puff pieces.
As a writer/director, James L. Brooks has only made a handful of films – but several of them, including Broadcast News – were successful with the Oscars. This was his follow-up film to the Oscar anointed Terms of Endearment (1983) – for which he won both Directing and Writing Oscars. Broadcast News is, to me, his best film. He has always worked in comfortable, rather well-worn genres, but at his best he finds a slightly new take on them. Broadcast News is not an overly daring film in anyway – but what it does, it mainly does flawlessly. They don’t make romantic comedies – or movies – like Broadcast News much anymore. And American movies are poorer for it.