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.
Work is more than a background for these characters. Take away their jobs and they would have nothing to say to each other, and nowhere to go. This is not only a plausible description of such a relationship in the movie’s chosen context but a great relief in the context of recent movies. For once, we get to watch two people fall in love (more or less) without going through one of those gauzy, touristic montage sequences walks on the beach, shopping sprees, drives in the country, etc.–with which Hollywood is wont to camouflage its ignorance of the human heart. For once, too, we hear a couple talk to each other, instead of seeing their lips move to heavy musical accompaniment. The chummy partnership between Jane and Aaron, played with a nice edge by Albert Brooks, is equally believable. Friendship, like love, is a state of affairs that the movies have had a hard time with. Broadcast News gets them both right.
When a movie has such unusual strengths, you want to be swept away by it, and you feel almost churlish about admitting you weren’t. Having laid out the territory so splendidly, however, Brooks never quite decides where to go with his story, and in the clutch he loses faith in his game plan of keeping the personal relationships front and center. Tom does a piece on date rape. (“He’s blowing the lid off nookie,” Aaron says contemptuously.) In the middle of a victim’s weeping testimony, the piece cuts to a sympathetic tear failing from Tom’s eye. Later, it develops that the cutaway was added after the original interview–that Tom made himself cry in order to juice up the story. It’s a good sequence. Unfortunately, Brooks tries to pivot the story on it. Tom’s “incredible breach of ethics,” as Jane calls it, becomes central.
Suddenly, Jane, Tom and Aaron are propelled into a series of confrontational scenes that seem far more intent on ending the movie than on working out these three characters’ feelings for one another. Brooks means for the date-rape controversy to clarify things, but it diminishes them. And by homing in on a narrow issue of journalistic ethics, he shifts our focus from the personal realm to the professional, forcing us to ask ourselves a question what was perhaps better unasked: What is this movie telling us about the state of TV news?
It is certainly not a subversive message. Brooks is saying nothing that would rouse the ire of any network executive. Indeed, Cheryl Gould, the senior producer of NBC Nightly News, has written for Newsweek a generally positive assessment of the movie in which she delightedly admits to “squirming in my seat” on hearing Jane Craig speak “lines straight out of my life.” The things that trouble Brooks trouble Gould equally, but she assures us that the networks have them under control. “It’s not today’s network anchormen we have to fear,” Gould observes. ‘They, unlike the William Hurt character, are intelligent, urbane and well-seasoned journalists. They are not propped up by producers, but work alongside them. Nor do I think that the big danger is local news hype and flash. That battle was fought and won over the last ten years, despite the occasional flare-ups.”
Now, reasonable people may disagree over the distance that separates Tom Brokaw from Tom Grunick. More to the point are the questions that don’t occur to Cheryl Gould, because Broadcast News doesn’t provoke them. Why are the networks’ anchormen so much more vivid to us than the stories they present? Why must anchors and correspondents always have the last word, although they have so little to say? Why is the news itself forever being told, in effect, “sorry, we’ve run out of time”? The answers to these questions lie, of course, in the need of networks (and, for that matter, local stations) to provide easy emotional segues from news to advertising, and to give the illusion of difference without running the risks of difference–to compete with each other for the public’s affections even as they don’t dare offend any significant part of the public.
Brooks juxtaposes the date-rape episode with a mass layoff ordered in the name of economy. In so doing, he encourages us to associate the breakdown of TV news ethics with the age of Lawrence Tisch. Here, too, he is not saying anything that would get him into a fistfight in the CBS News cafeteria. Of course budget cuts and layoffs have hurt the quality of network news reporting. But the erosion of the networks’ former dominance over the medium–the cause of the budget cuts–is not so clear an occasion for dismay. The rise of cable TV and public TV have added a certain modest variety to the news diet; The MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour and ABC’s Nightline, which it inspired, have, for starters, allowed people (even, on occasion, thoughtful people) to express views that take more than thirty seconds to state. That’s not about to happen on any of the evening news shows, regardless of the size of their budgets.
If Broadcast News proves to be a hit with most of the inhabitants of the world of broadcast news, it will be, above all, because it celebrates what is nearest and dearest to them: the war against the deadline. At the beginning of the movie, Jane is putting together a story about a troubled veteran’s return home. With only a couple of minutes to go before airtime, she decides to insert a dissolve to a Norman Rockwell painting on the same theme. A news aide, waiting to take the finished piece to the control room, protests that it’s too late for such refinements, but Jane insists. With the cassette finally in hand, the aide runs as fast as her legs will carry her, nearly falling over an open file drawer, colliding with a water cooler and, in serious pain, arriving in the control room at the last possible moment. This is a triumph that Broadcast News invites us to share. Here, we are made to feel, lies the essence of TV journalism. But the romance of the deadline has quite as much as Lawrence Tisch to do with the degradation of TV news; meeting the deadline, beating the other network or fitting the story into two minutes and fifteen seconds instead of two minutes and thirty is the stuff of which TV news careers are made. If these goals are achieved, who cares if the story is indistinguishable from one that ran last week and the week before that–or from the one running simultaneously on another channel?
Insofar as Brooks has succumbed to the temptation to comment on what’s wrong with TV news, he tends to ally himself with the view that there’s nothing wrong that a little vigilance couldn’t cure. It is to his credit, though, that his heart isn’t in this–or any–easily summarized message, and that he never quite succeeds in turning the staged cutaway into the moral dilemma it purports to be. When Jane tells Tom that he has stepped over the line between responsible and irresponsible journalism, he says, ‘It’s hard not to cross it–they keep moving the little sucker, don’t they?” The man has a point. If TV journalists are to be bathed in graphics and throbbing music; if they are to be required to break every subject into bite-sized pieces; if it is to be their highest mission to provide gentle emotional transitions from, say, starvation in Ethiopia to a Burger King commercial, why should we get so worked up over a single, slightly false tear?