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.