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Broadcast News (1987) Home Video Review

Burying the Need

The other day, I finally got around to watching writer/director James L. Brooks' highly regarded, Oscar-nominated 1987 dramedy, Broadcast News.  For the life of me, I can't understand the hype.  With the exception of a few remarkable scenes, this movie is awful.  I was ten years old when the film came out, so my understanding of what constituted "award-worthy" at the time is very limited.  Maybe this really was the high-bar back then; maybe it was a shit year for movies.  What I can say for certain is that Brooks' message is spot-on, but the movie in which it's stuffed like an afterthought is a cloying, directionless mess.

Let's begin with the children.  Broadcast News opens in 1963, where a blonde teenager confesses to his hard-working, delivery-truck-driving dad that he's doing poorly in school, and he's concerned that his looks and popularity are overshadowing his ability to be a good student.  Pop reassures him that things will be okay, and the boy promises to try harder--going into a sort of self-flagellating motivational trance.  Because I've seen the poster for this film, I immediately peg the boy as William Hurt's younger self (though I confess to being utterly confused because the dad character has the nebbishy features and delivery of Albert Brooks, who's also on the poster).

Flash forward two years to a high school graduation ceremony.  The blonde boy is at the podium delivering a snarky farewell address and bragging about leaving school two years early.  "Gee," I thought, "that kid really buckled down."

A moment later, as he's whining and getting pummelled by older boys in the parking lot, I realized that this is not the same boy at all--it's Albert Brooks' character.  Had the miracle of DVD not allowed me to rewind the film and notice that the title cards announcing the years also listed two different cities, I probably would have been confused for a good deal longer.  It's a sloppy, confusing way to open a movie, but nothing compared to the next scene.

Elsewhere, a precocious little girl is typing a fan letter to her favorite newsperson.  Her father comes into her room and tells her that she's too obsessed with her typing, and that it's time for lights out.  A minute later, she storms into the living room and berates the old man for using the word "obsessed" for its negative connotation.  The child actor's struggle to wrap her mouth and brain around such big words as well as master a cartoonish Southern accent made this exchange excruciating; but it wasn't as bad as the shock of learning that her exaggerated drawl would stay with her through the years on her way to becoming Holly Hunter.

The story then skips to its late-80s present, where Jane (Hunter) is a Serious News Producer whose best friend is Aaron (Brooks), a Serious News Reporter.  She's a tightly wound, career-driven shrew who rails against the coming superficiality of network news; he's a well-read politics junky whose intellectualism can't surmount his lack of self-esteem and ultra-average looks; he's also madly in love with Jane.  Into their sewing-circle of spite plops Tom (Hurt), a dashing and utterly vapid news anchor who's been freshly hired at their Washington bureau.

Aaron is instantly jealous, and Jane is reluctantly smitten.

Hey, let's do something fun.  Let's call Broadcast News out for what it is: A rom-com rip-off of Sidney Lumet and Paddy Chayefsky's Network.  I could go into greater detail about the love triangle that overshadows the (perhaps at the time) cutting satire and observational humor about news as entertainment.  But that's a waste of time.  Broadcast News is Pretty in Pink with sport coats and teleprompters, minus the bitchin' soundtrack.

The only interesting, original thing about this movie is something that probably happened accidentally: Late in the film, Aaron gives a pretty funny speech about how Tom is The Devil:  He's handsome, polite, and plans to destroy the planet by lowering peoples' standards until nothing of substance matters.  A couple of scenes after that, the network lays off much of its Washington staff, and Jack Nicholson--who plays a millionaire celebrity news anchor--shows up to preside over the last day. As people pack up their desks and cry on each others' shoulders, he strides through the offices with a sinister calm--and I couldn't help but recall his role as Satan in that other 1987 Yuppie blockbuster, The Witches of Eastwick.

I really wanted to like Broadcast News, but the fact is that James L. Brooks simply can't pull of issues-based comedy.  Network was a brutal satire of the onslaught of superficial news, and had lots to say about traditional journalism in the face of new media and corporate profits.  It was also damned funny and disturbing because Lumet and Chayefsky genuinely cared about the issues they were satirizing. Brooks' film could have been set in any business, because its focal point is not news media; it's the formulaic love story that drags the meaty material down.

A lot of that blame falls on Holly Hunter's shoulders.  Keep in mind, I'm writing this nearly a quarter-century after the fact, but Hunter's nagging, self-righteous, frigid character is no more interesting or real than any of the lovelorn shlubs that Jennifer Aniston or Katherine Heigl built their careers playing in equally crappy, predictable rom-coms.  Hunter may beat them all, though, with her Southern-fried accent;random fits of crying that, I think, are supposed to be comedic; and unbecoming mania that reminds me of Andy Samberg's SNL impression of the comic-strip character, Cathy.

It doesn't help that Brooks refuses to focus his charaters' motivations into anything resembling cohesion.  Is Tom the Devil, or just too ignorant to know he's being used?  Does Jane fall for him simply because of his looks, or because she sees a sensitivity in him that her logical, activist brain lets slide for a bit?  And is it love or infatuation?  Is Aaron really the nicer, more sensitive of the male leads, or is he really the most selfish and evil guy in the picture?  The screenplay bounces back and forth between these scenarios so often that it's as if every other page of the shooting script came from a different draft.

By film's end, all of the characters are miserable, even though they have relationships and (in some cases) kids.  Granted, Brooks breaks cliche by not having Jane and Tom end up together, but I wasn't sure what the hell I was supposed to have learned from any of their experiences.  Or, for that matter, what their romantic entanglements had to do with the selling out of evening news.

The only bright spot here is Albert Brooks, who does Wishy-Washy Snob like nobody's business.  He's the only indication that Broadcast News has the potential to be something greater than it is.  His smarts, heart, and wit keep the Network legacy alive amidst all the awards-baiting melodrama, and made me forget that all the film's juicy commentary was--at that point--nine years old.

You may wonder why I keep bringing up Network.  Simply put, that movie is the most damning media critique I've ever seen on film (a distant second may be Natural Born Killers).  It is so perennial in its relevance and so astute in its Nostradamus-like ability to predict and satirize our disposable entertainment culture that there's no room left in its genre-of-one for successors.  It's like trying to name a movie that did Star Wars better than Star Wars.

With Broadcast News, James L. Brooks delivered a third-rate rom-com with (mostly) first-rate actors, and somehow convinced millions of people that it's a classic.  I'd tune in to watch an exposé on that mystery, no matter what the anchor looked like.

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