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Broadcast News

(SPOILERS) I enjoyed Broadcast News when I first saw it in the 1980s. I think the things I enjoyed about it then – the well-drawn characters, in particular the dry, superior tone of Albert Brooks – are the things I still enjoy about it. And yet, there’s a lingering negative quality I was vaguely conscious of at the time that also carries through, of something shapeless about the picture in style and plotting, almost like a TV show (even the title is almost wilfully vanilla, nondescript). Which is perhaps appropriate for its setting. But there’s also something else. An overriding and inescapable bugbear that kept gnawing at me as I revisited the movie: director James L Brooks fashions a target figure, a personification, for all the things going wrong with the news, but he essentially thinks the news was okay, something to be proud of, something that, in its heyday – presumably when he worked in the CBS newsroom – spake the truth.

It’s a curious state of affairs, in that the essential corruptibility of the system isn’t exactly “news”, even to Hollywood (Ace in the Hole; Wilder also remade The Front Page, also fiercely cutting towards the media; His Girl Friday; Absence of Malice; Network won Oscars for it, more than Broadcast News did – seven nominations and not a statuette among them). Oliver Stone, prior to displaying his lack of mettle for all to see, was developing some cachet around this time through exploring the less acceptable face of the media (Salvador, Talk Radio). Perhaps Brooks, as a former CBS News writer, felt genuinely wistful towards “halcyon” days of honesty and integrity. Perhaps, as the man who spawned the predictive-programming programme par excellence, The Simpsons, he simply knew and was fully on board with the programme.

But essentially, our “heroes” Jane Craig (Holly Hunter) and Aaron Altman (Brooks) are, as producer and intrepid reporter, bastions of old-school values. Which entail packaging reports according to the punchy house style, failing to question their narrative and stance (they are the MSM, obviously), and taking issue only with someone who is overtly glib and superficial (the pretty WASP wins over the smarter nebbish Jew every time, professionally and with the girl. At least, that’s Brooks’ underdog message).

Perhaps the secret is that Tom Grunick (William Hurt) exposes Jane and Aaron’s own limitations, their own shallowness, and doesn’t care. Jane is attracted to Tom, while Aaron, bookish, toweringly intellectual and very pithily witty, is attracted to Jane. When she admits to Aaron she has fallen for the shallow – but undeniably talented at what he does – news anchor, he lambasts her: “He personifies everything that you’ve been fighting against”. Which is what, exactly? He’s at least honest about his lack of scruples, and his manipulation of the audience (their relationship is hobbled after she confronts Tom for inserting after-the-fact footage of himself tearing up in response to the testimony of a date-rape victim). Aaron and Jane never once question the values of the system they operate in, as a corporate behemoth, only the abilities and motives of those working within it (Aaron will eventually move to a job in Portland, not because it’s more honest, but because he sees a chance of being valued there).

This is the kind of backward idealism, hearkening towards something that never existed, except as a hallowed mirage, that cloyed globalist puppet Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck almost two decades later (also to Oscar acclaim). Had Broadcast News employed the cynicism of Wilder or Hawks, Brooks’ milieu would have felt much more alive. Instead, the news itself is “straight”, a respectable edifice wherein, yes, ratings dictate content, but in essential remit and institutional format it is unimpeachable. As we know, as Orson Welles and Charle Foster Kane knew, ’twas never thus. Except for those employing the faux-innocent banner of “fake news” as a means to distinguish one lie from another lie (the acceptable one versus the – likely for Hegelian reasons – unacceptable one).

Pauline Kael focussed in on this concern with the movie at the time, its failure to address “what’s considered newsworthy and why” and the way the movie “glamorises a particular version of professionalism”. While she doesn’t go as far as suggesting the news edifice itself is a big fat lie (obviously, it is, and unfortunately, there’s no hope for anyone under any illusion otherwise at this juncture), she rightly questions those in the business esteeming their role therein: regarding Brooks, “He can’t imagine having a conflicted, despairing relationship with your profession” and “Jane and Aaron never ask themselves if maybe Tom isn’t the perfect front man for the kind of mechanised news that they are so proud of”. Broadcast News is The West Wing of TV news journalism. True and honourable intention and aspiration exist in its dojo. I don’t know if Broadcast News did for news journalism what Top Gun did for aviation, but it’s hardly James Woods getting continually pissed, threatened and shot at.

Cast-wise, director Brooks hits all the right notes, however. Albert Brooks was in there at the picture’s genesis (he cast James L in Modern Romance, and would go on to appear in I’ll Do Anything) and his likeable-difficult smart guy is immensely likeable even as he has to learn his lessons the hard way (the flop sweat scene, as he attempts to host the evening news amid drastic leakage, is excruciating and hilarious by turns). Hunter replaced a pregnant Debra Winger, for whom the role was written, and I suspect the picture only benefits from her wired, perky presence. There’s a vitality that would be much more melodramatic and subdued with Winger (much as I like Winger).

Hurt, expectedly, navigates a man who is no intellectual but is nevertheless sharply perceptive within his own milieu, with deceptive ease. These days, however, I find watching a movie, even one where he is very good, which is most of them, in his kind of hesitant befuddled-smart way, less engaging than I once did. Everyone’s mileage varies on the personal lives vs movie personas thing, and Hurt has avoided the fierce glare of #MeToo exhuming his history and cancelling him (which is to say, like any manufactured movement, it is selectively outraged and motivated), but I can’t help but have in the back of my mind Marlee Matlin’s experiences. Especially so when, as here, he’s portraying duplicity beneath the charm (and when Matlin’s experiences were concurrent with production; there’s an extraordinarily insensitive interview with Matlin that doesn’t really account for the extent of her alleged mistreatment). This was the actor’s third successive Oscar nomination (a win for Kiss of the Spider Woman, then a nod for Children of a Lesser God), and it would have been little surprise had he been recognised again the following year for The Accidental Tourist.

The peripheries of the picture are similarly well populated. Joan Cusack delivers a stunning piece of early slapstick as she hyperventilates over a deadline and attempts to get a videotape across the office in time for broadcast (brother John also has a faceless cameo as one of those victim to layoffs). Jack Nicholson makes an unbilled cameo as star news anchor Bill Rorish, worth it alone for the look he gives as, having expressed sympathy with those suffering brutal staff cuts, he is told by scalper Paul Moore (Peter Hackes) “You could make it less brutal by knocking a million or two off your salary” (notably, Jack played Rorish for free). Lois Chiles is a glamorous reporter far more of a fit for Tom’s vexed superficiality than Jane. Robert Prosky (Gremlins 2) is the on-the-way-out immediate boss. Other faces include Christian Clemenson (Edwin in The Fisher King and Socrates Poole in The Adventures of Brisco Country, Jr) and early John Carpenter collaborator Frank Doubleday as a mercenary.

As a director of all this, Brooks is a slouch. When his characters visit Nicaragua, it may as well be the Fox backlot (I’m sure it was). He’s a TV guy doing movies, basically. Which is fine for his standard romcoms, but with a charged newsroom environment, someone with a little more dexterity and oomph wouldn’t have gone amiss. Ron Howard, perhaps (I jest). Bill Conti on generic score chores rather adds to the aesthetic flavourlessness. For better or worse, Broadcast News lives or dies on its performances.

And dialogue. I won’t quote a ream of Aaron’s zingers, but they’re probably close to a chuckle a line. His calculation that Tom is handsome (“Because nobody invites a bad-looking idiot to her bedroom”) and jaundiced dismissal of the opportunistic date-rape piece (“I think you really blew the lid of nookie”) are only beaten by his analysis of his one-time anchor performance. “What was good about it?” asks Jane. “I lost six pounds” he replies. My favourite, though, comes from the employee Paul lets go amid a faux-effusive “If there’s anything I can do for you”: “I certainly hope you’ll die soon” comes the response.

Interestingly, given the prolonged and calculated manufacture of their enemy status, the picture perhaps offers a revealing insight when it opportunistically uses Libyans (see also Back to the Future) as a hot news threat (Top Gun at least didn’t name its enemy). It’s all okay, it turns out, as in this case it’s merely a “rogue” pilot on the loose, but Aaron feeds the audience a different take on the savage dictator when he suggests Gadhafi “doesn’t foam at the mouth or anything when you speak to him, he seems not at all mad. He seems like a leader, very impressive. Self-controlled. That’s what’s so crazy”. Yeah, it is. Crazy.

Brooks’ Midas touch is legendary in the business. On TV, at any rate (The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Lou Grant, Taxi, and of course The Simpsons). But his movies have been equal parts hit – Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News (moderately so), As Good It Gets – and miss – I’ll Do Anything, Spanglish and How Do You Know. I haven’t even seen the latter, and I probably ought to since it will now stand as Jack’s final role (Nicholson appears in four of Brooks’ six movies).

Broadcast News was one the critics ultimately swooned over more than the public; it was released at just the right time for awards recognition to send it stratospheric, but it only ever did comfortably. Actors (Hurt, Hunter, Brooks in Supporting Actor) were nominated, and Best Picture, along with Screenplay Written Driectly for the Screen/ Cinematography (Michael Ballhaus) and Film Editing. But this was The Last Emperor’s sumptuous year, and for froth, throw Moonstruck a few pearls (neither The Untouchables nor Full Metal Jacket received Best Picture nods, better than most of those, Hope and Glory possibly excepted, that did).

Aside from the lack of political awareness, the other thing that struck me about Broadcast News is that it isn’t really much more than a grownup John Hughes movie; Pretty in Pink or Some Kind of Wonderful for thirtysomethings, transposed to the workplace. And let’s face it, for the lack of cutting critique Brooks brings to the table, it could be any workplace. But then, Brooks’ natural movie inheritor is Cameron Crowe. And no, that isn’t a compliment.

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