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Non-Review Review: Broadcast News

Broadcast News feels like it has lost a bit of its bite as the years went on. Originally released fifteen years ago, it undoubtedly seemed like a prophetic commentary on trends in news media, voicing an understandable unease at the line blurring between merely reporting the news and “selling” it to an eager and unquestioning population. Back then, these trends were undeniably present and one could sense a none-too-subtle shift in the approach to news. Unfortunately, it looks like those trends are to stay, and I think that has aged Broadcast News considerably. It doesn’t feel like James L. Brooks’ telling media satire is attacking a coming change so much as it is making one last stand against it. It’s still a very clever, very powerful and very well put together piece of film, but it sadly feels like it’s fighting a battle lost long ago.

That, perhaps, makes Broadcast News the most depressing comedy I’ve seen in quite some time.

They let an Tom, Dick or Harry host the news…

Of course, there’s more to Broadcast News than the satire. It is, after all, something of an awkward love story about a triangle between a news producer, a foreign correspondent and the hot-shot new news anchor. As with a lot of Brooks’ writing, the human interactions feel a lot more tangible than they do in most romantic comedies, the dialogue and chemistry much more natural and realistic. The characters don’t fit together like some form of jigsaw, as they tend to in most romantic fantasies. There are reasons for Jane to love both Tom and Aaron, but there are also very fundamental reasons why she shouldn’t. And, of course, vice versa.

Brooks has a great leading trio. Holly Hunter is one of my favourite leading ladies, and I genuinely believe that she never really got the type of fame she deserved. Playing Jane, she manages to take a character who should be a big bunch of neurosis and makes her seem much more real and fully formed than one might expect. She’s sharp and smart, but she also doesn’t understand people as well as she understands facts and statistics. She can’t even fully understand her own magnetic attraction to Tom, the handsome news anchor who is the antithesis of everything she stands for.

They should screen their coverage better…

Similarly, Albert Brooks is superb as the veteran field reporter who masks his own thoughts and feelings with a sly and biting sarcasm. Aaron is that type of character almost perfectly suited to the actor playing him. It’s very tough to imagine anybody except Brooks making Aaron seem even vaguely likeable. He’s passive-aggressive, snarky, adversarial. He never says what he means or what he feels, and he’s openly resentful of those who succeed while he fails. He’s a jerk, and an obnoxious one at that. He’s so petty that he even teaches a kid towards the end of the film to refer to Tom, his romantic rival as “the big joke.” Brooks’ casting is pitch-perfect and the actor picked up a deserving Oscar nomination for the role.

William Hurt’s contribution to the film is easy enough to overlook, if only because both Hunter and Brooks are nearly perfect comedic talents. Hurt pretty much exists to play a counterpoint to those two intellectual news reporters, a more human and more engaged newscaster – a parody of all those vacuous newsreaders who try to channel audience emotions like bad salesmen. However, Hurt manages to make Tom more than just a crass stereotype. In fact, he’s actually far more sympathetic that Aaron. While Aaron seems to resent Tom as much for who he is as for what he does, Tom does seem to try to better himself. Naturally, he makes missteps along the way, and shows occasional poor judgment, but Tom is perhaps the most charming and the most likeable of the trio, and Hurt manages to make a lot of that appear genuine when it could very easily seem like a shallow farce.

Room for different views…

That said, while Brooks has an uncanny knack for exploring dysfunctional human interaction, I’m not convinced that the overlapping personal relationships here work nearly as well as they would in As Good As It Gets, which remains perhaps my favourite James L. Brooks film. (And one of my favourite romantic comedies ever.) There are times when the movie can’t seem to decide if it’s about the characters or the news or some combination of the two, but that’s not a bad thing.

Brooks’ commentary on news media is spot-on. It’s so spot-on that a loot of it feels almost moot now. We are living in a world where Aaron has completely lost his argument, and Tom is completely and remorselessly restyling broadcast news in his own image. The other great news satire, Network, resonates more today because it pushed that side of new coverage well past its logical extreme. No matter how screwed up news coverage might get, it will still never go quite as far as Network did. Well, one can hope. Broadcast News isn’t anywhere near as absurd, Brooks making what might be considered a far more reasoned argument. The problem is that his reasoned argument looks relatively tame compared to the reality of modern news.

Hi-jacking the movie…

Tom violates journalistic ethics during a fluff piece that’s designed to endear him to a nation. What he does is, undoubtedly, a serious violation of trust and a massive manipulation of his viewers. The problem is that I can’t imagine anybody batting an eye at that sort of conduct today. In a world where newsreaders seem to pause to collect themselves after the last human interest story, or a tear in the eye is seen as the strongest possible endorsement of a shallow puff piece, Tom’s actions don’t seem that far outside the realm of acceptable contact. It’s still highly objectionable, but if that were the worst breach of journalistic ethics occurring today I would be very surprised.

Don’t get me wrong. It doesn’t diminish Brooks’ criticism at all. Indeed, one of his early pieces of criticism of new media is actually based on real events. Jane is doing a presentation to a bunch of producers and makes a point to cite a specific incident. “Oh, I was going to show you a tape — a story that was carried by all networks on the same night. The same night not one network noted a major policy change in Salt II nuclear disarmament talks… Here’s what they ran instead…Go ahead. Show the tape.” The tape shows the Japanese Domino Championships in the Spring of 1985, which got massive coverage and is indeed impressive. Jane seems a little dismayed when her audience, composed of news producers, eats up – applauding and cheering. “I know it’s good film.  I know it’s fun. I like fun. It’s just not news.”

Broadcasting their love…

The only real mention of the viewing public we get comes later in the film after Aaron’s disastrous attempt to anchor the weekend news. It’s at this point we hear about the public contacting the network – not about the news itself, more about the anchor. “There were complaining phone calls because you were sweating?” Jane asks. Aaron clarifies, “No, nice ones worried that I was having a heart attack.” He might joke, but it’s still a damning commentary the public seems more invested in the person delivering the news than in the news itself.

There is something quite biting about Brooks’ commentary on media’s inability to self-regulate. After all, it’s journalists complaining about this sort of thing, but they are the ones perpetuating it. Jane explains to Tom, “Another thing I can’t stand is when White House reporters bullsh!t with each other after a briefing and then one of them has a theory and the other quotes it in his story as “White House sources” say…”

Experts in the field…

Of course, Jane herself is just as easily taken in. She’s moved by Tom’s human interest piece on date rape. She even takes Tom back to her bedroom despite the fact that she very clearly thinks he is an idiot. Aaron remarks, “He must have been great-looking, right?” Jane responds, “Why do you say that?” Aaron says, “Because nobody invites a bad-looking idiot to their bedroom.” Even the smug and cynical Aaron seems to desperately long for the approval of the network anchor Bill, preoccupied with the notion that his story might have made Bill smile, and desperate to talk to him on the phone.

Similarly, although it’s hard to tell how serious he is at any given moment, the idea that Blair might have been flirting with him threatens to change his opinion of her. “My gosh,” she remarks after he tears into her for acting like a sycophant, “and for a while there, I was attracted to you.” She walks off, leaving Aaron shouting after her, “Wait a minute — that changes everything.”Of course, he is probably being sarcastic, but there’s just enough longing in Albert Brooks’ performance to create a sense of doubt and ambiguity.

Aaron-ing their difficulties…

Even Bill is a massive hypocrite. When the time comes to la-off staff, he visits the office in person as a show of solidarity, complaining about how brutal these sorts of things are. His colleague remarks, perhaps fairly, “You can make it a little less brutal by knocking a million dollars or so off your salary.” Bill is, understandably, not amused.

Broadcast News is a great film, but I think it has aged rather poorly. Modern news media has evolved so that the commentary here seems relatively tame. It’s a shame, because Brooks’ script and direction are both tight, and the leading performances are absolutely superb. It’s well worth a look, but I think it hasn’t aged as well as it might have.

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