On Screen: Broadcast News

Written and Directed by James Brooks

20th Century Fox

Broadcast News, a romantic comedy set in a Washington TV news bureau, is every bit as “bright,” as “painfully funny,” as “dizzingly smart,” as you may have read or heard. In fact, it is even better than that. It entertains you for two hours, and after that it won’t leave you alone. It gets under your skin. You will want to recommend it to those of your friends who haven’t seen it, and you may have to argue about it with those who have. But if this movie provokes arguments, it does so not by pushing all the bright buttons of topicality (the strategy that made Fatal Attractions a hit), but by featuring characters that are too complex to be pigeonholed, too unpredictable to be defined only by their latest actions. If you feel sorry for Aaron, the brilliant young TV journalist, when his career is damaged by one botched broadcast, then wait a minute. You may hate him a couple of scenes later when, driven by jealousy, he tries to poison the mind of the woman he loves against his rival. And if you despise him for that, hang on for yet another scene or two and you will see him behave courageously during a wave of firings at his bureau.

These shifts are not a matter of inconsistency. Broadcast News strives for something better than the petty consistency of those few current films that aspire to any consistency at all. Almost all movies treat us, morally, in the Pavlovian manner. They ring very tiny, tinny bells labeled good or bad, but never dare to show us how goodness is truly tested or how true evil subtly operates. Or, more commonly nowadays, a smart-alecky nihilism dominates the screen, encouraging us to think that there is no good or evil, just the quick and the dead. If you don’t care about private honor or professional ethics or if you have simple-minded notions of these matters, you won’t get many laughs out of Broadcast News.

For the comedy of this movie is morally rooted. It’s about people doing work that requires nine times more adrenalin than the normal human possesses, and who are yet trying to keep their minds and moral senses alert while the adrenalin is flowing. It is a comedy about people trying to do their best work without being entirely clear about what or whom is being served by their best work. When one character accuses another of breaching an ethical line, the reply is pained and perceptive: “It’s hard not to cross that line. They keep moving the little sucker, don’t they?” This isn’t cynicism. It’s a cry of moral confusion, the moral confusion that underlies the action of all high comedy. One of the things that’s great about Broadcast News is that it never lets you forget that there is such a line or that people who care about it must sometimes squint to see it.

The ethical dilemma is worked out through the tuggings and entanglements of a romantic triangle. Jane (Holly Hunter) and Aaron (Al Brooks) are a great team. She is a producer with immense organizational ability; he is a reporter, verbally adroit, politically savvy (about the world scene, not his own career). He is a great newsgatherer; she is a shrewd synthesizer and presenter of what he gathers. They work so well in tandem that it would be fitting if they were a loving couple as well. But they can’t get beyond platonic friendship, though he yearns for an emotional deepening and she gingerly considers it. The chemistry may not be right, but perhaps it’s more of a scheduling problem. How can they pause to learn how they truly feel while working in a pressure-cooker atmosphere at once exhilarating and maddening? How can they pause to learn anything at all except data?

Aaron and Jane are two members of that generation (of people now in their mid-thirties to mid-forties) who received the multi-layered insights that humanism exalts. As students, they probably read the long paragraphs of Thomas Mann and Henry James slowly and carefully, and savored the aristocratic imagery of Yeats. But who has time for Mann or James with deadlines pressing and bureau chiefs barking and job lay-offs in the offing? And as for Yeats, his rough beast is already upon us in an era when Qaddafi must get plenty of airtime after his latest murder because he is not only a monster but a scoop. In such an atmosphere, sensibility doesn’t quite evaporate, but it edges towards hysteria. Intelligence doesn’t dwindle; it festers. Jane schedules crying jags for herself alone in her apartment, and Aaron indulges himself in office corridors by making glib wisecracks about the very newsmachine he is feeding.

Enter Tom Grunick, drafted from some affiliates’s sports department and determined to make good in Washington.

Grunick (William Hurt) is a moderately intelligent and immoderately ambitious man. Handsome, amiable and invincibly telegenic, he is a component made in broadcaster’s heaven to fit into the machinery of TV news. Not only is he smart enough for the job, he is also stupid enough for it. He would probably get bored with a news story exactly when most viewers would start yawning. He has an instinct for the most obvious illustration of the most telling point. He knows how to read a statistic to make it sound either alarming or reassuring, depending on whether alarm or reassurance is required to keep ratings up. He can cry on cue. And, most attractive feature as far as Jane is concerned, he is a handsome talking head needing words to say, a male Galatea waiting for a Pygmalion to animate his all-American countenance.

The fact that her substance can fill his form excites Jane both intellectually and sexually. His openly expressed dependence on her professional genius prods her to do her best work. And his almost gushing gratitude heats her up. A small, neatly knit woman, Jane sits transfixed as the large, blonde Tom seizes the arms of her office chair and, in his eagerness to thank her for his first big success, swivels her from side to side. For a woman encased in several layers of self-consciousness, hobbled by a thousand tics and inner rigidities, Tom’s bounding, sheepdog amorousness is both too much and exactly right.

The casting of a sly, rapid mood-shifter such as Hurt as the rather plodding Tom was a stroke of genius. On the Mary Tyler More Show, which director Brooks helped to create, newscaster Ted Baxter was pure windbag, a strutting robot fit only for the most farcical situations. That sort of character would have sunk Broadcast News, a three-dimensional comedy. We would have hated Jane if she had been attracted to Tom because he was a pretty puppet whose strings she could pull. Hurt makes us see what Jane sees in him. Though far from brilliant, Tom often shows the sort of kindness that brilliant people are too impatient or too tense to be bothered with. And he is also capable of romantic gallantry as when, in the midst of a party reception attended by international VIPs, he sights Jane standing on a mezzanine above the ballroom and mock-romantically clutches at his heart. How can Jane heed Aaron’s insistence that Tom is all surface when the surface holds such promise?

Yet Aaron keeps insisting. His characterization is like one of those multi-stable figures that psychologists use to test their subject’s responses. Just as a young woman’s chin may turn into an old woman’s nose when you mentally adjust your perception of such a picture, just so do you have to keep rethinking Aaron’s character. At first, he seems an immensely ardent and honest intellectual chaffing at the phoniness of media. But then you blink and he’s really a hipster contemptuously serving a machine he despises. He’s an ardent lover trying to save the woman he loves from choosing a man who may plunge her into self-hatred. Then, blink, he’s a study in soul-destroying envy.

The actor who plays Aaron, Al Brooks, has experience both in the legitimate theater and in cabaret (besides being himself a very talented writer). His experience as a “stand-up” comic helps him show us when Aaron is putting on an act, either when joshing his colleagues or keeping Jane from a date with Tom by playing upon her feelings of guilt. But as an actor, Brooks can draw us close enough to Aaron to show us what is driving the man. A solidly built man with a round, droll face and a rather feathery voice that can go whinny under duress, Brooks has just the right physical and emotional dichotomies for this role of a sincere Iago.

But Holly Hunter’s Jane is the true protagonist of the movie in that she is the character through whose eyes the audience watches events transpire, and her problems become the viewer’s problems. That she can perceive network news as positing a moral quandary allows us to empathize with her. Too many protagonists of social satires are simply malevolent mechanical toys wound up by their authors to pursue a predestined course of wrongdoing, so that the authors may crow: “See! That’s the sort of bastard our corrupt media-intoxicated capitalistic society produces!” But the scheme misfires dramatically: the one-dimensional protagonist seems so utterly devoid of any possibility of goodness that you can’t believe he wouldn’t louse up any system he was born into.

By contrast, Jane is a workaholic who not only wants to be tops on the job but also desires to serve the citizenry. Even as she helps Tom to succeed as anchorman, she realizes that she may be creating a Frankenstein monster who will further cheapen a profession that is already short on integrity. When Aaron wants to undermine Jane’s love for Tom, he knows which of her buttons to press: he accuses Tom not of some private vice such as infidelity but of a professional lapse. This is just the sort of “sin” that would appall Jane, a woman whose work has become her life.

It’s a tribute to Holly Hunter that while she manages Jane’s whirlwind physicality deftly, she never lets us forget the mental ache the reporter carries inside her. And it’s an ache that will continue precisely because of the whirlwind physicality. For how can anybody resolve their spiritual problems when the control room is going crazy, the edit room is bursting with tension, and the entire network newsroom’s lid is boiling over?

Jane’s problem is indeed our problem. Life has sped up and experience is stretched thin. Perspectives are lost. The “bottom line” determines all. More power then to James Brooks, a worker in a field where the “bottom line” is god, that he has crafted a film that is bright but not glib, that is fast but not playing a shill’s game, that makes us laugh at some of our current ills without letting us kid ourselves into thinking that laughter is the cure.

  • Richard Alleva

    At the time he wrote this review, Richard Alleva was a free-lance writer living in Washington D.C. He still works as a film critic for publications such as Commonweal today.

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