Love and frustration behind the cameras of a TV news set.
James Brooks, the writer and director of Broadcast News, has said that he intended to make a romantic comedy rather than a social commentary, and through most of the movie his observations of the milieu have a nicely incidental flavor: This is how things are, he is saying, make of them what you will. An aggressive producer warns a recalcitrant underling that she’ll “fry” his “fat ass” unless he comes through with a certain interview, and her boss, looking on, exclaims, “I had no idea she was that good!” The bureau chief’s teen-age daughter goes into an ecstatic swoon on meeting a blond would-be anchorman but fails to recognize a far more capable, but unprepossessing, reporter with whom she once went on a fourteen-day raft trip.
These are funny and telling moments of the sort you’d expect to find in a Frederick Wiseman documentary, if a network news operation were ever so foolish as to let Wiseman (the maker of High School, Law and Order and other portraits of inbred, institutional worlds) in the door. One did let James Brooks in the door, obviously, and he took plenty of notes. His movie, moreover, wears its research well; apart from a few brief slides back into the land of the half-hour sitcom (from which he emigrated not too long ago), the work scenes fit the characters and the story as closely as they fit the setting.
Reduced to its essentials, the premise of Broadcast News–a good-looking bubblehead and a serious reporter vie for the affections of a workaholic producer–sounds like a formulaic answer to a request for a love story with a TV news background. But Brooks has endowed these characters with more than the usual quota of ambiguity, and William Hurt, Albert Brooks (not related to the director) and Holly Hunter play their parts with zest as well as conviction; the script seems to have come as a happy shock to all three actors. What’s more, it’s far from clear to the audience for which pairing, if either, we ought to root.
Hunter is an inspired choice for the producer, Jane Craig; small (5 foot 2), with a sing-songy Georgia accent and a lot of restless energy, she is an actress we can imagine as something other than an actress. (Faye Dunaway, who played a producer in Network, suffered from the liability of looking–and carrying herself – like a woman destined to be in front of the camera rather than behind it.) William Hurt is also a sharp piece of casting as Tom Grunick, a sportscaster-turned-newscaster who can’t believe his good fortune. He’s easygoing, unassertive and the right kind of handsome; and just as Hunter doesn’t seem to be hung up on projecting starlike grace, Hurt isn’t hung up on projecting starlike intelligence, although he’s a smart enough actor to play a slow-witted character without making an idiot of him.
Early in the movie, Jane Craig gives a speech to a group of local broadcasters in which she denounces her profession’s infatuation with show business and, in particular, with user-friendly reporters and anchors who haven’t got much upstairs. Then she meets Tom Grunick, the epitome of the species. She wants to have the same contempt for him in the flesh as in the abstract, but certain physical urges get in the way. Besides, he’s not as bad as he seems; he admits his shortcomings and remembers to say thanks to those – notably, Jane herself – who help him put up a good on-camera front. When the network decides to do an instant special on a military crisis in the Gulf of Sidra, Tom is named anchor and Jane producer. Taking her boss aside, she pleads with him to give the anchor’s role to her reporter buddy Aaron Altman (the Albert Brooks character), who has been to Libya and can think on his feet. But her plea is ignored–the higher-ups see Tom as star material-and, in one of the movie’s best scenes, Jane manipulates Tom from the control room, feeding information to him through an earpiece while he conducts a series of apparently assured and informed interviews with people in the field. After the show, Tom tells her what a thrill it was to have her inside his head; the rhythm of her promptings and his questions, he says, was like “great sex.” Jane won’t admit it, but it was like that for her, too. With Hunter and Hurt in the roles, we understand why this slow-footed, intellectually insecure guy is so captivated by this female dynamo and why this workaholic woman, who has told herself not to expect too much in the romance department, is so pleasantly taken aback by this looker’s attentions – and by the idea that her professional skills might, with him, be social skills.