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James L. Brooks' romantic comedy Broadcast News presents an engaging picture of the transformation of America's national TV news in the 1980s, when the corporate consolidation of media got going in earnest. The wild satire of Paddy Chayefsky's earlier Network offered some remarkably prophetic opinions on the future of The News, but Brooks frames his commentary within a more or less conventional comedy-drama format. Three ambitious and talented TV news people interact, but the expected love triangle never quite comes to pass. That's due to the involvement of a fourth player that can best be called The Career Imperative. Vital talents no longer hold down conventional jobs, but instead struggle to advance personal career arcs. Nothing separates one's working life from one's personal life. Screenwriter-director James L. Brooks' image of network news also dramatizes the commercial pressures that were then just beginning to blur the boundary between news information and entertainment. Twenty-five years later, there seems to be little or no distinction between the two.
The story takes place in the Washington news bureau of a major network. Aggressive young producer Jane Craig (Holly Hunter) pushes herself to achieve, all the while wondering if her obsessive attention to detail isn't holding back her love life. The highly educated Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks) has no equal as a news writer and may be the best-informed on-location reporter in the business. He knows that he's not appreciated, and fears that he may never get a shot at more prestigious news work. He's also frustrated that the energetic Jane doesn't see him as boyfriend material. A new player enters in the person of the relatively inexperienced Tom Grunick (William Hurt), a newsreader without formal journalistic skills. Tom is attractive, personable and sincere, qualities that help him at work. He reads news copy in a way that engages his audience on a personal level -- viewers would never guess that he doesn't always understand the stories he reads. To Aaron's chagrin, Jane is immediately attracted to the handsome Tom.
Jane and Aaron's incisive reporting from war-torn Central America earns Jane kudos from senior producer Ernie Merriman (Robert Prosky). Jane and Tom enjoy a smashing success working a hastily organized special weekend report on a crisis in North Africa. Aaron's contribution is not recognized. Tom discovers that he's being groomed as the network's next top anchorman, when the present reigning celebrity Bill Rorich (Jack Nicholson) decides to retire. But a new round of budget cut layoffs puts everyone's future in danger. Convinced that he'll be dumped by his ungrateful employers, Aaron takes a shot at distinguishing himself as a replacement weekend anchor. Aaron has reported from battlefronts, keeping cool as bullets fly over his head. He's prepared and ready to ace the live camera trial, and has even been coached by Tom. So why does he feel like he's being led to a firing squad?
An amusing drama about the personal lives of three modern overachievers, Broadcast News thrives on a trio of delightful performances. Holly Hunter's Jane micromanages her life, taking quickie breaks for self-induced crying therapy, and giving explicit instructions to every taxi driver she encounters. A born organizer who does her best work under pressure, Jane goes straight for what she wants, which makes for an awkward scene when she tries to seduce Tom on their first meeting. The good-looking Tom has been an academic underachiever since childhood, yet his winning personality has never failed to open doors for him. Optimistic and understanding, he's applied himself to the problem of connecting with viewers on camera. While his colleagues rush to complete scripts and work out technical details, Tom closes his office door and carefully chooses his on-camera wardrobe.
Aaron can become arrogant about his talent but also harbors the fear that it's no longer appreciated. Surviving a company-wide layoff, he finds that he's been kept on only because his low salary makes him a bargain employee. Although Aaron is by far the best journalist of the three, he watches helplessly as his superior work benefits others. Tom and Jane are the ones being groomed for stardom.
Broadcast News is funny and endearing, but it also offers an accurate and somewhat disturbing picture of changes in the news industry. Brooks had worked as a CBS News writer decades before and was well aware of the drift away from hard news reporting that occurred when the network news divisions were suddenly forced to compete for viewer shares like any other TV entertainment. He raises the issue right at the beginning, when Jane Craig's college lecture on the decay of journalistic ethics falls on deaf ears. The up 'n' coming generation of broadcasters see nothing wrong with wasting the brief 22 minutes of nightly broadcast time on trivial stories, like Jane's example of a giant domino topple stunt.
The main conflict in the newsroom addresses Jane's discovery that Tom has "cheated" a news story by including a close-up of himself shedding a tear in an interview with a traumatized rape victim. While Aaron complains that Tom has shifted the story's focus from "important issue" to "sensitive star news man", Jane is shocked that Tom would fake the effect by re-enacting his reaction shot after the interview, and then editing it in, essentially adding a fictitious element to the news piece. Although nobody else is troubled by Tom's report, Jane feels that it is a betrayal of sacred journalistic ethics. What Jane doesn't seem to realize is that all news film puts an interpretation on the facts. Earlier in Nicaragua, she taped a close-up of a boot being tied to illustrate supplies reaching the Contra troops. She believes that if the cameraman tells the soldier to tie his laces, that's manipulation and a no-no. It's painfully obvious that her editorial choices and the presence of a full video crew are already manipulating reality.
Although the film charmed much of the news world -- a photo of its stars bumped Arnold Schwarzenegger from the cover of a December, 1987 issue of Newsweek -- some reviewers weren't as impressed with Jane and Tom's ethical conflict. Critic David Denby found the faked tear gimmick overstated and thought the Jane Craig character was naïve. Broadcaster Tom Brokaw opined that William Hurt's Tom wouldn't last as a news anchor, although the film stresses that Tom negotiates a contract that leaves others to take responsibility for the editorial content of the stories he reports. Tom's arrangement is more like the British BBC system, where the on-air personalities are regarded as "newsreaders", not news editors. Tom does exploit the rape story as a self-promotional springboard, but that practice has become a given state of affairs in a news environment that feeds off image and personality.
Broadcast News is beautifully directed and acted, whether the setting is the newsroom, a private party or a gala formal banquet. The three leads are cast to perfection, with Albert Brooks and William Hurt turning in what may be their best performances to date. Also notable is Joan Cusack's Blair, the newsroom workhorse whose enthusiasm and loyalty won't be rewarded, and Lois Chiles as Jennifer Mack, an attractive field reporter that takes a shine to Tom. The script is at its most honest when it shows Jane removing Jennifer as a romantic competitor by literally shipping her off to Alaska. No taint of wrongdoing rubs off on Jane, who, if one really examines her progress, is a user who advances only with the help of colleagues like Blair, Aaron and the lowly video editor, all of whom are considered expendable hired help.
The movie is a document of the new careerist lifestyle in which romance and raising a family are secondary goals. The Aaron-Jane-Tom triangle never really comes together. One friend takes a trophy wife, another attempts a long distance marriage with a mate in a different city and the third settles for a less stressful job in a smaller news market. Broadcast News remains relevant because it paints its picture of work in the '80s in depth, offering telling details instead of broad satire. And it's believable: when a colleague grouses about a coming round of layoffs, Tom replies that similar house-cleanings occurred regularly at every place he ever worked. Today, opportunities for young talent like James L. Brooks, who began by writing impressive documentaries and news specials in the 1960s, are more elusive than ever.
Criterion's Blu-ray (and standard DVD) of Broadcast News presents James L. Brooks' best film in a glowing, director approved Hi-def transfer. The personable Brooks and his editor Richard Marks contribute to a feature commentary, and Brooks becomes even more candid while commenting on a deleted ending and other cut scenes. The new docu A Singular Voice covers Brooks' long career with hit TV series and movies, using input from much of the talent he worked with on shows from Room 222 through The Simpsons. A new interview profiles CBS news producer Susan Zirinsky, reputed to be a model for the film's Jane Craig character. An on-set featurette with the stars and a trailer round out the extras; an insert booklet contains an essay by critic Carrie Rickey.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Broadcast News Blu-ray rates:
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