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A character-driven tale of driven characters whose professional triangle trumps their romantic one, Broadcast News (1987) takes place after the fall of the Equal Rights Amendment and before the fall of the Berlin Wall—a time when gender wars and cold wars (rather than infotainment and political scandal) led the news. James L. Brooks’s comedy about people for whom work defines life stars Holly Hunter as the quintessential eighties heroine, juggling career and love, ethical lines and deadlines— and charts the era’s shifts in the field of reporting. But more than a snapshot of a specific time and profession, Broadcast News is Brooks’s keenest study to date of human relations, and his most fully realized film. Hunter, Albert Brooks, and William Hurt are individually and collectively superb, caroming off one other as newshounds who venture outside their comfort zones.
James L. Brooks came to Broadcast News from a storied career in television and following his acclaimed feature debut, Terms of Endearment (1983). If his film-directing output now seems the opposite of prolific, consider the rest of his résumé: Since 1969, he has written and/or produced such television classics as Room 222, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Taxi, and The Simpsons, and produced Penny Marshall’s Big, Cameron Crowe’s Jerry Maguire, and Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket. As a creator or mentor, he has been responsible for an immodest number of late twentieth-century touchstones. His offbeat, emotionally charged film comedies—which also include As Good as It Gets (1997) and Spanglish (2004)—like his television shows, are always distinctive, humanist panoramas of group dynamics, swelling and flowing with themes one could call Renoirian: that folks are inconsistent, that one man’s comedy is another woman’s tragedy, that shared experience can isolate individuals just as easily as it can connect them, and that conflict is rarely resolved by the closing credits. “A director makes only one movie in his life,” Renoir observed. “Then he breaks it into pieces and makes it, again.” This aptly describes Brooks’s feature career.
The triangle is the basis of euclidean geometry, romantic conflict, and Brooks’s movies. Consider Terms of Endearment, in which Debra Winger at one point is torn between adulterous husband and steadfast lover while her mother, Shirley MacLaine, is split between parental responsibility and romantic hopes. You might say that Our Mr. Brooks is a master of mapping the multiple-triangle scenario, his characters negotiating conflicts both internal and external.
One side of the external triangle of Broadcast News is reporter Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks), a high-IQ, low-charisma urban Jew who understands the news better than he reads it. Another is Tom Grunick (William Hurt), a telegenic airhead and midwestern WASP who reads the news better than he understands it. The hypotenuse is Jane Craig (Holly Hunter), a Georgia firecracker whom both men are half in love with and who is half in love with each in return. (Debra Winger was tapped to play Jane but declined due to pregnancy, making way for Hunter’s indelible turn.) While this may sound formulaic, it isn’t. Brooks’s film is rare among American movies in that it’s both an involving romantic comedy and a, trenchant satire thereof, playing off the themes and tropes of the genre while indulging in their pleasures—a tricky thing.
Born in Brooklyn in 1940 and raised in North Bergen, New Jersey, James L. Brooks briefly attended New York University before being hired as a page at CBS. This led to a newswriting job at the “Tiffany Network” in the waning years of Edward R. Murrow. He moved to California in 1965 to research and write documentaries for David L. Wolper and then began his career in episodic television. But the experiences and processes of his time in journalism stayed with him. He would recall the newsroom as a place where there was “no line between shoptalk and personal talk.” And he brought his reporter’s ear to his characterizations in Broadcast News, as he had to The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Both that pathbreaking newsroom television show and Broadcast News purvey spunky heroines with thriving professional lives and moribund personal ones, anchors who are the butt of office jokes, and management shuffles that rupture the work family. Plucky Mary Richards of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, defined by her work rather than her marital status, proudly rides feminism’s second wave. Prickly Jane Craig of Broadcast News is caught in that wave’s unexpected riptide, worrying that her rewarding professional life is coming at the cost of her personal one. (Unlike those other 1980s women-inshoulder- pads films 9 to 5, Baby Boom, and Working Girl, that is, Broadcast News is not a fantasy of how females can change the workplace. It is a comedic, but also realistic, look at workaholics, female and male.)
As Brooks later remembered the origins of his second feature, he was invited to the 1984 political conventions and “started doing research on something that did not yet exist”—spadework for the cactus garden that would become Broadcast News. “I felt so much that we as a society and everybody I knew . . . were going through fundamental changes, and I wondered whether the way we looked at romance was changing,” he recalled. His reporting paid off in keen observations of how the process and product of work can become a surrogate for courtship and sex. It likewise paid off in the unique voices he was able to give his archetypal characters. Broadcast News is unlike the work of so many other writer-directors, whose disparate characters all speak with identical vocal rhythms and inflections. Albert Brooks, Hurt, and Hunter sound like a trio of oboe, bassoon, and piano.
In framing the changing relations between men and women against the backdrop of the changing newsroom, Brooks could not have known that nightly network news was having its last hurrah. In 1987, the year Broadcast News was released, 71 percent of Americans watched the nightly news. By 2009, that figure was 29 percent. But Brooks did see, presciently, the fault lines that would lead to this decline, the emergence of the soft-news infotainment that would soon obscure the hard-news culture that Broadcast News depicts (mercenaries in Angola, the contras in Nicaragua). Two decades after its release, Broadcast News is both a classic comedy and an artifact of a lost culture.
Within his humming news hive setting, the Washington bureau of a network, Brooks plays with the tropes of the Hollywood movie. The dumb blond is Tom. The chase scene is the one where the assistant director, Blair (Joan Cusack), limbs propellering like windmill blades, races down corridors and hurdles over open file drawers to get a tape from editing deck to control room by broadcast time. The explosion is Jane’s eruption into scheduled tears, unable to reconcile professional competence with personal ineptitude. The sex scene is when Jane skillfully feeds cues remotely into Tom’s earpiece during his network anchor debut. “What a feeling having you inside my head,” he tells Jane in the afterglow. “Indescribable . . . There was, like, a rhythm we got into . . . It was like great sex.”
Brooks plays with these familiar devices in a comedy that takes values seriously. A recurring theme of Broadcast News is the lines people draw to demarcate boundaries, be they personal, professional, or ethical. Lines can connect people, as Brooks shows us both in the dialogue and in his visual compositions, but they can also place them on opposite sides or on different levels.
Early in the film, at the convention where she meets Tom, Jane delivers a muddled keynote about how the star system and frivolous features are corrupting TV news. She looks down on her audience as they dismiss her condescending words. When Tom buttonholes her afterward, she invites him to her room, badly fumbling a pass. Later, on the phone with Aaron, Jane observes, “I’ve passed some line someplace. I am beginning to repel people I’m trying to seduce.” On the job, she polices the line between acceptable and unacceptable news practices, standing firmly against staging the news for dramatic effect.
But this border collie who barks at others for crossing the line herself lacks boundaries between work and play. When prospective suitors get close, she defaults to work mode in the mistaken belief that she can produce a date like she produces a segment. She is a self-sabotager. So is Aaron, so exceptional at reporting and writing the news, who wants to anchor as much as Jane wants a guy. When he gets his shot, Aaron’s literal on-camera meltdown overwhelms his obvious intelligence. In perhaps the funniest line in a film full of them, Aaron sighs and says ruefully, “Wouldn’t this be a great world if insecurity and desperation made us more attractive?”
Jane and Aaron are insecure out of their comfort zones; Tom is an impostor outside his. “Half the time, I don’t get the news I’m talking about,” he confesses to Jane. But Tom’s charisma glosses over his intellectual deficits: on him, slowness looks like contemplation.
Brooks choreographs both the mating dance and the professional one for maximum cinematic impact. Jane wants to lead and doesn’t know how to follow. Aaron has two left feet. Tom progresses from wallflower to prom king. In other words, in Broadcast News, the camera does not navigate space, the characters do. Confident in one area and uncertain in another, each of them suffers visibly from what sociologists call status inconsistency—that is, the experience of feeling worthy in one sphere and unworthy in another. “Except for socially, you’re my role model,” Blair says to Jane.
Tom, whose debut as national anchor is praised by management, doesn’t hear from Jane afterward. “I like you as much as I can like anyone who thinks I’m an asshole,” Tom says when he asks her to a correspondents’ dinner, leaving her uncertain as to whether the invitation is collegial or romantic. At the event, Jane literally looks down on him, from the mezzanine, as he greets revelers below. But in a scene crystallizing their romantic and professional dance, she rides down the escalator to meet him as he runs up to embrace her. As a woman, she seems willing to cross the line and meet Tom halfway. But even if they could come together there, romantically, another line divides them—one of ethics. Jane is a keeper of the faith that reporters should report the news. Tom, harbinger of the convergence of news and entertainment, breaks that faith.
Like the makers of Casablanca, Brooks started production not knowing whether his heroine would fly off with one guy or stay on the ground with the other. He shot the film in continuity, so that Jane might wind up with either, and made two alternate endings. Ultimately, Jane, that definitive eighties heroine, walks into the sunset with . . . the job she loves.
However effective it may be as an era-specific comedy of lines and deadlines, Broadcast News moves us because at its center is a universal story about love and work. Never mind that Tom, Jane, and Aaron all break free of their immediate triangle. They will each always be part of one. “There is love and there is work,” Edgar Degas said. “Yet we have but one heart.”
Carrie Rickey is the film critic at the Philadelphia Inquirer. Her essays are collected in various anthologies, including American Movie Critics, The “Rolling Stone” History of Rock and Roll, and Top of the Order.