Directed By: James L. Brooks
Written By: James L. Brooks
Produced By: James L. Brooks
Cast: William Hurt, Albert Brooks, Holly Hunter, Robert Prosky, Lois Chiles, Joan Cusack, Jack Nicholson
MPAA Rating: R
Runtime: 133 minutes
Review Date: January 14, 2011
I didn’t expect much going in from Broadcast News, and I’m not entirely sure why. Perhaps its place in the canon of film was eclipsed, at least in my limited memory, by 1976’s much-lauded Network. After having those expectations thoroughly annihilated, I can safely say that Broadcast News is the best movie I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing.
At its most basic level, it’s an in-depth exploration into how a fast-paced network newsroom operates. Writer, director, and producer James L. Brooks perfectly captures the rush of developing and delivering a great news story.
But it’s clearly so much more. As the poster tagline suggests, “It’s the story of their lives.” Indeed, this is the story we’re not supposed to see, the humanity behind the curtain. William Hurt, Holly Hunter, and Albert Brooks are a joy to watch as the players in a quirky love triangle — sometimes rectangle — that takes center stage in this frenetic environment.
Tom (Hurt) is the “face” of the news team (I can’t emphasize that enough) — the talking head, the personality. He’s all about appearance, which is just about his only asset (the only things in his desk are a hairbrush and two freshly-laundered shirts) — but he’s not vain; he’s too dumb to be egotistical. It’s perhaps his well-meaning doltishness, or his self-consciousness around smart people, that makes him endearing. He represents the “New Age” kind of reporting, putting a human face on the story. He’s someone the viewers can trust and bond with. But his news isn’t reality; it’s a fabrication. He’s a performer, and he’s sensational.
Jane is the producer, immediately likable and brilliantly acted by Holly Hunter. She thinks and moves the fastest — but she’s dreadfully boring. Unfortunately, she’s a control freak, and Tom’s brand of news — showcasing the drama going on behind the curtain, the empathy of the news team — goes against everything she’s about. You’d think: okay, they’re foils, can’t stand each other, until the sparks fly and they inevitably drift into a romance (this is, after all, billed as a rom-com, but there’s some powerful drama to be sure). Of course it’s not that simple. Their relationship is symbiotic, and in that way much more real and believable, while transcending reason. This is a movie where characters fall in love with each other not for arbitrary, plot-serving purposes (“I think you’re attractive, let’s start a romance”), but because it’s true to life.
Aaron (a hilarious Albert Brooks) is the third wheel in the blossoming office relationship, and the function he fulfills in the office machine is similarly ambiguous, more of a cog than an integral component. While he is clearly the smartest, he has no “spice” factor and fails to stand out to the execs. He’s the unrecognized mule for a “network that tested his face with focus groups.” With regards to Jane, he’s old hat. Brooks brings an undeniable comedic punch to the role, employing the brand of bitter, self-deprecating wit for which he’s now well known.
These three characters form a sort of holy trinity, their roles serving each other. And they’re quite locked in to these roles, as Aaron unfortunately finds out. Tom is the “face” for a reason — there’s a delicate science to his appearance that comes natural only to him. The film’s most engaging scene involves Aaron, watching the broadcast at home, feeding raw insight to Jane over the phone, in turn dictating talking points to Tom via earpiece, who only vaguely understands the news but is made to look like a razor-sharp expert. “I say it here, it comes out there,” Aaron mumbles as he looks on in horror.
In Broadcast News, James Brooks creates a place where you’d really want to work, and that brings me to the fourth character, which is the newsroom itself. Busy and chaotic, nobody here is good at separating their work from their personal lives. There’s an undeniable sense of camaraderie, of community. These people are a family. You feel like an intern, a fly on the wall watching the players interact.
Brooks does a great job of creating the sensations of tension and payoff that are part of daily life in the newsroom. You really feel on the edge of your seat as Tom delivers his first news piece, guided by Jane, in turn referencing Aaron’s thoughts — and an overwhelming urge to participate in the jubilations as the team wraps up.
The halfway point of the film introduces a new layer of competition to the dynamic, as the network experiences massive cutbacks and layoffs. The mechanics of the workplace are so thoroughly constructed by this point that it’s especially heartbreaking to see the news team begin to dissolve; impossible to imagine these characters anywhere else, in any other context. Of course this economic subplot, responsible for ushering in the film’s climax, is especially relevant today.
I found the film to bear an even greater relevance for modern, attention-deficit generations, for our “more is more” world where media capitalizes on every little workable morsel, where media loves scandal, and is very partisan, news teams and anchors either red or blue. Where it’s less important what the news is than who’s telling it.
But like some of the best films that deal in heavy subject matter, it’s not political, it’s not dense, it’s not preachy or informative. Like the tagline states, it’s just a human story. A smart romantic comedy about smart people navigating romances. Where things aren’t so black and white. Aaron’s not exactly the perfect guy and Tom’s not the devil, a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Each line is just dripping with subtext in a script that’s as full of laughs as it is intelligence. And while some of the dialogue can be a little heavy-handed, and on-the-nose at times (especially for a movie about ethical journalism and truth in broadcasting), that’s a miniscule gripe in the scope of the entire picture, which is altogether a colossal achievement.
Josh Medcalf is a freelance writer living in Chicago.