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.

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Drugstore Cowboy (1989)

Drugstore Cowboy – 1989

Director – Gus Van Sant

Starring – Matt Dillon, Kelly Lynch, and James LeGros

There are a few basic steps that each and every narrative film must go through to ensure that the audience can relate to, continue to watch and enjoy the film in question.  Step one: Develop compelling characters.  We as the audience need a trustworthy, reliable vehicle through which we can experience the story.  Step 2: Craft an interesting tale.  Fashion a story that has a message about something the audience either already knows something about, or would be interested to learn about.  And step 3: Tie the whole thing together and make it fun (or in the absence of fun, make it important).

In the case of Drugstore Cowboy, Gus Van Sant cherry picks from the list of steps, taking elements that he likes and leaving the rest.  While it does have characters, they aren’t very compelling.  In fact they are all rather shallow and unlikable, each a little smarmier than the last.  As far as story goes, it is of the long, agonizing, downward spiral variety.  Not super compelling, really, just a little boring to watch.  As for the last step, that was actually sort of a success.  These, selfish, venal characters were married very well with the uncomfortable depressing story, unfortunately the fun and importance WAS left out.

To bring everyone up to speed, here is a brief breakdown of the story.  Bob, Diane, Rick and Nadine are a group of junkies and opportunists out to commit small-scale robbery of drugstores (hence the name) in order to steal the controlled medication from the pharmacy counter.  When they aren’t faking seizures and or breaking and entering all in the name of getting high, they’re getting wasted, antagonizing the cops and belittling each other and their drug addled stoner neighbor (which ends up being important later on in the story).  After one of them accidentally overdoses, the three remaining addicts hole up in a haze of pot, heroin and dilaudid, and try to figure out how to ditch the body and avoid the police.

Like some of his other films (Elephant, Gerry, and To Die For spring to mind), Gus Van Sant seems to gravitate towards subject matter without a light at the end of the tunnel.  But where Elephant was an examination of the country’s reaction to the Columbine school shooting, and To Die For was an interesting, well acted, noir story at its best (I never saw Gerry), Drugstore Cowboy lacks any real redeeming quality.  Matt Dillon’s Bob spends so much of the movie as a paranoid, shitty human being, that I found it hard to give a shit about his so called “redemption” and thought it seemed rather tacked on and false.

Heather Graham as Nadine was the most sympathetic of all the characters, and only really because I felt sorry for her.  Where as the others seemed reap what they had sewn, Nadine seemed decidedly innocent and tragic.  Matt Dillon, and the rest of the major players did a fine job acting, and in truth they were probably fairly accurate to how these people would be in real life, I simply took no pleasure in watching them.

As far as direction, I far prefer the rather optimistic Gus Van Sant who surfaces every now and again to direct the occasional Oscar bait like Good Will Hunting, and Finding Forrester.  These films are far less confrontational, but they also balance the director’s inherent malaise a little better with the occasional sweetness and intelligence that we all know he’s capable of.

Now I realize I’m being a little overly harsh on this film.  It simply wasn’t my cup of tea.  In terms of its structure, and artistry, the film stands up fine, but the subject matter and the characterizations really left something to be desired for me.  I know it’s not fair to pre-judge a film, but I have a feeling that I will have an equally hard time with My Own Private Idaho which I will also have to watch as it is one of the 1001 on this list.  But I’ll do my best to give it a fair shake, and who knows…maybe I’ll be surprised.

If you’re looking for a dark movie revolving around drug addiction, and poor choices, I don’t know that you can get any better than Requiem for a Dream.  Strangely enough, the highs and lows are far deeper than those of Drugstore Cowboy, and the ending is just as (if not more) bleak and depressing.  Still the craftsmanship, architecture and immersion of Requiem left me feeling strangely satisfied, like I had really just seen something vital and important, something with a very strong warning message about the dependence and co-dependence of drug addiction, not to mention the inter-personal relationships of the people involved.

“Terrible people doing terrible things in a terrible movie.” – Ashley