Broadcast News (1987)

Broadcast News

Broadcast News – 1987

Director – James L. Brooks

Starring – Holly Hunter, William Hurt, and Albert Brooks

Every few years, maybe once or twice a decade, there is a movie that is a watershed moment for the audience.  Specifically it fundamentally changes how the audience perceives their relationship with how they see the world.  A film comes along, and playing with delivery, intention, or the pre-conceived notions of the audience, turns the world on its head, and shows us something familiar in a whole new way.

Films like the Lumiere brothers short “Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat”, “The Man with the Movie Camera”, and “12 Angry Men”, sideswiped their audiences by manipulating what they were expecting and adding what they never saw coming, in the process waking them up to a whole new way of looking at things.  Shit, even the Sixth Sense caused a whole generation of movie goers to not only watch out for twists, but to almost expect them.  The visceral reaction inherent in the unknown is an addictive, and revelatory experience. It is just this sort of reaction that all films try to go for, but few ever really manage to pull off, not to mention on the scale that is required of a cultural event.

So it was with a certain amount of excitement that I approached seeing how the media shapes and packages the information we consume, making it more palatable, while all the while leaving us craving more.  Broadcast News was one of those films that tried for, but for my money, didn’t quite reach that sort of cultural status.  While I found the actors fun to watch, the script funny, and the story engaging, I felt like it was never able to accomplish its goal of revealing the drive and desires of the media structure that existed in the late 80s and early 90s.  Where the 24 hour news channels of today seem almost theatrically and blatantly disingenuous about their goals and motivations, the news culture that this film seeks to expose was one hiding behind the impression of integrity and virtue, so I felt like I kind of already knew the ending to the story.

The focus of the film is focused squarely on truth in journalism, in particular with the relationship between popularity, ratings, and honesty in the reporting of the news.  Holly Hunter plays Jane, a producer and champion of ethics at a big television news station, who ends up butting heads with Tom, the dumb yet likable reporter who knows that he hasn’t earned what he’s given, feels bad about it, yet succeeds and advances despite himself.  William Hurt is the perfect actor to play Tom, because, truth be told, I liked him simply based on the fact of who was playing him.  To further complicate matters, Aaron, Jane’s workplace confidant, and secret admirer, immediately distrusts Tom based on the budding attraction between him and Jane.

Basically, in the eyes of Jane and Aaron, Tom represents all that is wrong with how the news is presented and delivered.  Attractive faces with little to no knowledge of or interest in the details of the actual facts, delivering the “stories” that are really more geared to engage and attract viewers than to disseminate information.  Seeing this as a personal affront to her code of ethics, Jane, tries first to take a stand against him, then to educate him, and finally, after relenting to his obvious charms, starts to compromise her beliefs and principles.  The false, yet believable emotion that Tom brings to his reporting, begins to win her over proving just how effective he is as a voice-box for the network.

Ironically, I don’t know that Tom’s use of false tears during a story about date rape was really any more or less manipulative than Jane’s juxtaposition of a picturesque Norman Rockwell painting with the less than dignified life of a newly returned veteran.  At best they are equally manipulative, and at worst Jane actually takes it a step further by hiding it a little better than Tom was able to.  And therein lies one of my problems with this film.  The message wasn’t ambiguous enough that it wasn’t obvious what they were pointing at, yet it wasn’t black and white enough to end the film convinced about one side of the argument or the other.  The film had a certain selective subtlety that seemed a little too inconsistent for my liking.  Ultimately I would have liked the film to take a bit more of a stand, whether I agreed with it or not.

Few people in Hollywood are so simultaneously revered and nearly as unknown as is James L. Brooks.  Famed for being one of the original writers and a producer of one of my favorite shows, The Simpsons, that is really where my knowledge of him ends.  To look at his list of movies that he’s directed is to be rather disappointed.  The Adam Sandler film Spanglish was one that I thought was supposed to be pretty awful, but  As Good as it Gets, with all of its Oscar wins, was supposed to be pretty great.  Despite all the acclaim,  I never had a real urge to see it, so for all I know it’s equally as good as Spanglish.  And of course, Steel Magnolias.  I’ve heard of it, but that’s really about it.  Now that being said, everyone else I’ve talked to about Broadcast News seemed to really love it, and the fact that I was only luke-warm on it leads me to believe that I must be missing something, or that perhaps I need to watch it again.

Like I said, William Hurt is fun to watch, Albert Brooks is funny, and Holly Hunter plays a character that is just like other characters of hers that I like a lot.  Unfortunately, those positives still don’t make the “just okay” movie that it was, the “exceptional” movie that I was hoping it would be.  Rather disappointing.

Advertisements

Kes (1969)

Kes – 1969

Director – Ken Loach

Starring – David Bradley, Brian Glover, and Freddie Fletcher

Coal mining town? Check.  Dismal future? Check.  Bleak story and pale washed-out color palette? Check. Yup, we have ourselves a film from straight out of England from the 60’s.  Filled with angry young men doomed to continually revisit the heartbreak and disappointment that is their legacy, films like these made up their own film movement in the mid 60’s to the mid 70’s.  Where other movements like the French New Wave, and Italian Neo-Realism seemed to relish the joy and spontaneity that could be present in everyday life, this typically English set of films seemed steeped in the grimy misery that surrounded the working classes of hard scrabble England.  These films primarily deal with young men, raging and rebelling against a system that invariably gets the better of them.  While that may seem an overly grim assessment of the this genre, it’s not meant to take away from the fact that these films often illustrate that in such hard-times also exist small moments of beauty and freedom.

Kes, a film about a troubled young boy, bullied at home and at school, finds solace and acceptance in the act of raising and training a raptor (bird), and manages to illustrate this struggle for freedom and happiness quite effectively.  Juxtaposing the cramped, dirty, and oppressive imagery of the institutions that keep our main character, Billy, tied down, with imagery of him caring for, reading about, and training his falcon offer us a glimpse at the type of freedom Billy aspires to.

Far be it from me to chastise a film for being slow and depressing, but Kes in particular works very hard to crush and beat the anticipation and hope of something better right out of you.  Each character, Billy, Jude (or Jud if you believe IMDB), and their mother, as well as everyone at the school seem stuck in their routines.  Day in and day out, they aspire for nothing greater than to head to the pub for a pint, and beyond that perhaps a good snog to escape their realities.  There is no higher or greater goal for anyone to pursue.  The jobs are closer to punishments than careers, and the best anyone can hope for is maybe winning a marginal amount of money gambling, or a few jokes with friends after work.

Billy is no exception.  He trudges through school, endures teachers and bullies alike (although it can be hard to tell the difference), and often times suffers the same fate at home.  His brother Jude constantly berates him, and his ineffectual mother spends the majority of her time trying to catch a marry-able man.  He is lost, forgotten, and for all intents and purposes, completely alone.  Once Billy finds the falcon, Kes (of the movie’s title), suddenly a whole new world opens up for him.  He devotes his time and energy on something that gives back more reliably than something as short-sighted and temporary as gambling..  For a brief time, this animal brings Billy as close as he’s ever been to flying.

(***Warning Spoilers***)

However, as in all films of this sort, there is inevitably the point at which this new-found happiness is shattered, and we get to watch our main character crash back into the dreary life from which he came.  Often times, it is due to some strife or conflict from a parallel story-line that comes back around from earlier in the film.  In this instance it’s his contentious relationship with his older brother, Jude (it’s unclear whether or not they are actually brothers, but for all intents and purposes he is).  The film starts with them fighting, and hurling insults at the other, and it ends similarly.   Jude is determined, not to help his little brother find a way out, but to ensure that he is as unlikely to escape this life as Jude himself is.

(***End Spoilers***)

Movies out of England all seem to have a bit of melancholy to them, even Harry Potter was a boy forced to live under the stairs and be treated like a second class citizen.  From this time-frame in particular, they seem to be downright oppressive.  Kes is no exception to the rule, rather, it’s more proof of it.  The color scheme of the film is dishwater browns and grays,  and the camera work is mostly fixed position zooming and panning, tracking with our characters through these earthy, sparse environments.  I’m not sure if the lack of color, or stillness of the frame was intentional in this film or based out of necessity, but whether it was or wasn’t, it was exceedingly effective, tempering any expectation that Billy would be successful in his spiritual exodus, with the reality of his eventual conformity.

Definitely, a tear-jerker towards the end, Kes is a prime example of the “Angry Young Men” (dubbed so by the folks at the Filmspotting podcast) movement of English film, and the remarkable depression of an entire class of working people.  While it is not an easy watch, it does resonate with the viewer at an emotional level.  While none of the imagery has stuck with me in particular, the themes and tone of the film have been rattling around in my brain since I saw it.  It’s a tough watch, though, so be prepared.

(***Warning Spoilers***)

“Goddamn it, Kes!  You made me cry over a bird!” – Ashley

12 Angry Men (1957)

12 Angry Men – 1957

Director – Sidney Lumet

Starring – Henry Fonda, Jack Klugman, and Lee J. Cobb

The legal system is a funny thing. By and large it works on the notion of truth, the differentiation between lies and provable fact. The problem is, that since all of these definitions and judgements are filtered through, and interpreted by other human beings, it’s nearly impossible to keep prejudice, opinion and point of view from clouding the “truth”, and making an unbiased result a near impossibility.

12 Angry Men seeks to scrutinize the process of determining a mans guilt or innocence by watching that process unfold. Henry Fonda plays juror number 8, the one man on the jury of a murder trial who hasn’t pre-decided the fate of a young man who is accused of stabbing his father to death. Each of the other jurors has their own individual reasons for thinking he is guilty, although none of them have anything to do with the facts in the case and have more to do with their own biases.  The entire duration of the film is tied up in the task of separating perception and fact, and as a result the internal, and is some cases subconscious motivations of each of the jurors is laid bare.

One major theme in this film is prejudice. Whether its prejudice against the young man because of where he comes from (a poor, immigrant neighborhood), or prejudice in favor of ones own interests (the man who wants the trial over with so he can get to his baseball game), the film is really asking what form of prejudice do you, the viewer, subscribe to, and are you able to understand it and take responsibility for it?  To a certain degree we are all guilty of this manner of behavior at one level or another, but like juror 8 we are also capable of standing up for what is right, understanding when we’ve made a mistake, and changing course when we are wrong. The biggest takeaway from this film is the idea of personal redemption. Yes, the personal redemption that is on display in the film, but moreover the potential for our own personal redemption.  Despite the dramatic story acting as a vehicle for the message, it is the audience that is under scrutiny the entire time.

The jurors are a vehicle through which we can see ourselves.  The young man accused of murder is not even a character that we get to know.  All we know of him is based on the impressions that we get from the completely normal,  yet flawed human beings that are charged with judging him, and we in turn make our own judgements based on what we think of them.  It quickly becomes apparent how fragile and important the system is that decides a man’s fate can be.  Not based on the color of his skin, his occupation, the neighborhood he grew up in, or much more scary, what else you have going on in YOUR life, but by the definable and provable facts of what he (or she) did or didn’t do.

As usual, Henry Fonda plays the role of our system’s super-ego to a tee (a role he has worked on and perfected in another film I had the pleasure of seeing and reviewing, “The Ox-bow Incident”).  With his furrowed brow, stoic features, and piercing eyes, he was born to take on the good guy role (precisely why he is so good as the villain in “Once Upon a Time in the West”).  Similarly, the gravely voice, gruff “angry-father” demeanor, and intense stare, make Lee J. Cobb a perfect choice as the stubborn, petulant, juror 3.  Finally, despite the fact that it took me out of the story a little, it was fun to see The Odd Couple’s Oscar Madison (Jack Klugman) take a turn as a raving, racist, who doesn’t quite understand how uncomfortable he makes everyone else.

As far as cinematography goes, this film is beautiful to look at.  The fact that it takes place (almost) entirely in the same room throughout the entire film is a testament to how engaging the film’s subject matter, and how talented cinematographer Boris Kaufman actually is.  One scene in particular, just after the aforementioned racist rant, where each Juror is forced to listen to what they sound like and each responds with shame and disgust, is so well orchestrated that I kept thinking about it for days after seeing it.

When it comes to the films on this list, the ones you should see, some are good, some are not so good, and there are others, like 12 Angry Men, that transcend the boundaries between importance of message, and quality of work.  It’s a wonder that this film came out of the 1950’s, before the bulk of the civil rights movement that would come after it.  It has definitely earned it’s place on this list, and is well worth a watch.  Incidentally, if you haven’t already seen it (or read the review), go watch The Ox-bow Incident too!  It might actually be my favorite of the two films, but both are fantastic.

“Acting!” (said in a whisper) – Ashley