Criterion Cuts: “Broadcast News”

Hello and welcome to the latest installment of Criterion Cuts, the weekly article where I dig into the archives of everyone’s favorite foreign/art house home video distribution company and unearth some obscurity and tell you just why it might be worth your time. As always, most of these come from the generous offerings available to Hulu Plus subscribers unless otherwise noted.

We continue the deep dive into the exploration of my Criterion Blu-Ray addiction with more things I picked up from the Criterion sale Amazon was having a few weeks back. The benefit of having all of these shiny discs sitting on my shelf is that it makes me very happy, and makes revisiting a joy; but to be honest I try very hard not to dig into special features before I write about the movie, in order to keep my reaction mostly uninfluenced by a bunch of outside critical appraisals, and I am dying to get to the commentary and special features of today’s movie.

So let’s kick back and talk about today’s movie, one that I’m sure a lot of people have seen or would be far more amenable to seeing than our usual fare.

Broadcast News (1987)

Diving into Broadcast News for this article was actually kind of a big surprise, because it’s truly an atypical Criterion selection. As much as I like their movies, they definitely skew artier and Broadcast News seemed so … so normal. The brainchild of writer/director James L Brooks, who had created such indelible TV classics as The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Taxi (both shows I adored as a kid and probably still would if I revisited them), Broadcast News isn’t particularly difficult or arty. It’s part newsroom satire, part romantic dramedy, which puts it up with popular stuff like the aforementioned Mary Tyler Moore show or even later fare like Sports Night. Why was this in the Criterion Collection?

Well, because it’s a damn fine movie. I try not to get too wrapped up in why movies are selected for Criterion treatment, because it’s a mixture of politics and black magics that one can usually only speculate at with great cost to ones sanity, but I can only imagine that there were a lot of people at Criterion who were really passionate about this movie, and the disc seems like it had heavy input from James L Brooks, so why not? I wish more conventional movies got such respectful treatment, even if it takes years after their original release for them to get it.

Broadcast News is, at its core, a story around Jane Craig (Holly Hunter), a talented up-and-coming TV news producer with a chip on her shoulder and a deep abiding love for the old style of news broadcast that she sees dying away. It might be hard to believe it now, kids, but once upon a time the people who produced television news were actual journalists, who cared about things like impartiality and ethics and doing good reporting. Broadcast News is deep into the entertainment wave of broadcast news, however, with human interest pieces and emotional appeals, scare mongering and big personalities. Basically the only type of news you’re going to see on television today. As we meet Jane, she’s giving a flustered, angry speech on the death of the news she grew up loving to a whole audience bored to tears outside of the dumb human interest pieces she shows as examples of the enemy.

It’s after this failure that she meets Tom (William Hurt), an up and coming news anchor who started in sports and has just landed his first big deal in a notable news organization. He’s good looking and charismatic, but dumb as a post, and he approaches Jane with all the adorable tragedy of a sad puppy dog, admitting his deep insecurities that not only is he part of that bleak future of news, he is incapable of producing anything else. Jane, as repulsed by his admission as she is attracted to him despite herself, fumbles an invitation back to her hotel when a quiet evening with romantic possibilities turns into her unloading all her fury and frustration onto him. He flees, and she’s left alone, heading back to her Washington newsroom defeated.

Jane overseeing one of Tom’s increasingly popular broadcasts. Much of the movie involves people watching other people removed via TV screens.

It’s here that she’s in her element, coming out of the otherwise awkward shell she can never seem to overcome. She’s a hyper-competent producer, capable of doing an incredibly taxing job not just well, but scarily well. It’s the kind of competence that’s wildly hypnotic just to see, a capability that no matter how it expresses itself draws people in and demands a response. Which is why everyone in her workplace likes her, especially her partner in crime, a reporter and writer named Aaron (Albert Brooks) with aspirations to one day be an anchor. He’s as old school as Jane, but witty where she’s stoic, charmingly abrasive where she’s muted and straightforward. They both make a perfect pair, and represent the eternal trap of work romances. Aaron is obviously into her, and maybe she’s into him, but mostly both of them are into their jobs and how amazing they do them together.

You can probably guess what happens next. Dumb, bumbling cancer-of-journalism Tom’s new job is in their Washington bureau, and his arrival instantly throws the balance of Jane and Aaron into disarray. It’s every love triangle in films, nothing new in its setup but absolutely wonderful in its execution. It’s easy, with garbage love triangles polluting cinema and TV up and down these days, to forget that there’s a reason it’s such a crutch: it genuinely works when it’s done well. Tom seems both eager to please and eager to show he can cut it, not entirely compatible things. Jane is torn, seeing Tom as a bright star to help catapult her success, and maybe a lost wounded handsome guy that she can take and make into her image of what news should be. And Aaron both hates Tom and comes to understand him through Jane, the two men never getting along but becoming something more like amicable rivals, never understanding each other but respecting that the other one represents everything they can never be.

The fearsome duo of Aaron and Jane, the most cynical people in the room.

What follows is part relationship comedy and part satire of news and media at large. It’s part Mary Tyler Moore, part Network, and if that comparison seems like I’m blowing too much smoke then let me explain. I love NetworkEveryone loves Network. But as a film its screed against humanity and the news and how the two cheapen each other is about as subtle as a sledgehammer to the face. Humanity is dumb sheep, Network shouts to the heavens, and can only be as good as what the news gives them. Broadcast News isn’t nearly so cynical as that, instead presenting us with a very human look at the machinations of the people who bring us the things we take for granted as fact daily, with all their foibles and hang ups, and asks us just why we accept their word when they are as messed up as us. What Broadcast News has to say about the misleading problematic agendas of news as entertainment is that the people who create it aren’t some evil force of control, but good people who fall into the very human trap of wanting to make something people will respond to, part creator’s ego and part human need for approval. Jane is a metaphor for all of us, knowing that Tom is an idiot, an empty suit with a pretty face and a penchant for fluff pieces, but sometimes that’s what you want and nothing can dissuade you.

What sells this is the human element here. Holly Hunter is probably the most charming actress of that era of film, but she’s hopelessly lost at sea by her own ambition as Jane. Not that that’s bad, mind you, but Broadcast News represents an evolution of the woman-in-the-workplace ideas Brooks covered in Mary Tyler Mooreas feminism marched into the nebulous space of being trapped by the successes of its second wave. Jane has her career and nobody thinks twice about that, but it has become how she defines herself. Everything becomes about scheduling and control, to the point that she tries to organize her dates much like she does a news piece. As her friend says to her, “Except for socially, you’re my role model.” Jane has no other definition, so when her work and her personal desires clash, it tears the whole of her in two.

When Aaron finally gets his chance behind the desk, it’s one of the most painfully bad newscasts ever put to film: real or imagined.

What really sells this is William Hurt as Tom. Dumb characters in movies are always a tricky business, and successes are few and far between. Actors are rarely dumb (their job requires them to at least understand people on a level most of us should be envious of), and playing dumb requires a certain amount of confidence and fearlessness. Even actors who can, however, often find that the ‘dumb’ roles are represented mostly as comic relief more than actual people, bumblers or obstacles for the heroes to overcome in their march towards whatever progress asks of them. Tom, however, is none of those things. He’s a normal adult, educated enough and capable at his job, but simply not up to snuff (especially compared to his whip-smart colleagues). He tries, with a beguiling honesty, to admit his failings and learn, but you get the sense he’s never going to get there and that in many ways that’s okay. The world is full of people who simply aren’t geniuses, but who still have talents or abilities, who are good at their jobs and competent at most everything they try to do. And even within his obvious failings, there’s a duplicity there: he’s an easy man to underestimate, but within the slow responses and careful dancing around minefields is a person who still knows how to get what they want via manipulation and dishonesty if necessary. That he seems like a lovable dope just makes that trap all the more dangerous.

Broadcast News is an easy movie to recommend, and thus an easy movie to dismiss, given the tendency (I’m fairly guilty of it from time to time, myself) to equate accessible and entertaining with dumbed down and pandering. But Broadcast News is neither of those things. Its messages are clear and confident, nuanced to a degree that even its more famous influences and eventual subsequent works influenced by it often fail to realize. From the opening shot of each of the three as a precocious child already expressing all of their most prominent adulthood traits, to the surprisingly moving ending with all of them years after their drama plays out, still doing what they’re doing, ships passing in the night as life carries them together again for a moment before carrying them apart: Broadcast News is as sharp a study of humanity and modern struggles between career aspirations and personal desires as any I know, and does so with a wry humor and a welcoming story, easily sitting as one of the best of its type.

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About M

Artist, ne'er do well, militant queer.
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