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We look back jokingly now on the 1980s as a fairly barren cultural period, as the decade in which cinema degenerated once and for all into a special-effects-driven numbers game, the decade in which the annual race to the bottom known as the Summer Event Movie really came into its own. Broadcast News, however, came out in 1987, and grossed over fifty million dollars in a year when Lethal Weapon took $65 million and was still solidly out-grossed by Moonstruck, which took over $80 million. These figures point to the fact that, despite its reputation for garish excess, the 1980s was a decade when a film in which not a single building is blown up, not a single drop of blood spilled nor a single naughty body part revealed (OK once, but I can hardly picture people queuing around the block in the middle of December to catch a glimpse of William Hurt’s bony ass) could still find a respectable audience.
Written and directed by James L. Brooks, this film is set in and around the world of television news, but is only partly interested in being a Network-style tirade against TV culture. The reason this film works so well is that it is first and foremost about people. Three of them to be exact: news producer Jane Craig (Holly Hunter), field reporter Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks), and up-and-coming anchor Tom Grunnick (William Hurt).
After a quick series of scenes in which the characters are seen as children, each exhibiting the skills and weaknesses that will shape their future careers, we first encounter Jane lecturing a clearly apathetic conference audience about the slipping standards of network news. As they begin to head for the exits, she tries to win them back by showing them a tape of a story carried by every major network on the night of a roundly ignored piece of crucial legislation. The tape shows a massive (and presumably record-breaking) domino run, complete with all manner of spectacular pyrotechnics, and, in the film’s first of many moments of bittersweet comedy, the departing audience turns to watch — not indignant and upset as Jane had hoped, but rapt and entertained, all oohs, aahs and applause, only to turn again and finish their exodus as soon as the tape ends. This, in essence, is the film’s message: the triumph of style over substance, the lowering of standards.
To its credit, the film gets this message on the table early, so it can move ahead and focus on its characters. Hurt’s suave Grunnick is newly assigned to Hunter’s Washington station, a station where she and Brooks are a firmly established dream team. Grunnnick’s motto, taught to him by his father, is “Never pretend to know more than you do”, a card he overplays so much that it becomes hard to tell where his eagerness to learn ends and general ignorance begins. Brooks’ Aaron is plain looking, knowledgeable, capable, multilingual, and incredibly bitter to be working for “a station that tests my face with focus groups.” We see him reporting from the thick of battle, and even with bullets whizzing over his head he is still able to phrase his report in such a way that they will be able to fade out to some poignant footage they shot earlier that day. He is also totally in love with Jane but their relationship seems to have stalled in the comfortable rut that is the ‘friends’ stage, a fact that only heightens his pique when he senses her falling for Grunnick, the man he comes to know as ‘the Big Joke’.
The cast is uniformly excellent. (This is a film that tucks an unbilled Jack Nicholson into the background and gets away with it). It is a joy to watch Hunter lower and raise her defenses, visibly catching herself falling for this man she doesn’t respect. She almost seems to be deliberately sleepwalking through her dealings with him, and as he leans in to kiss her for the first time, the audience can practically hear her pull the plug on her conscience for just a second, as she succumbs to the very charm against which she has been railing. “It must be nice to always believe you know better, to always know you are the smartest person in the room,” snarls her boss to her at one point, and Hunter has never been more heartbreaking or funny than she is when she tearily replies “No, it’s awful.”
Hurt, for his part, succeeds brilliantly in humanizing Grunnick. He is aided by a first-class script that knows the difference between a good-looking dummy and a self-aware good-looking dummy who is ill at ease with the fact that he is making a ton of money as a good-looking dummy. Like the other characters, Grunnick has to wrestle with situations in which he has to weigh what is right against what will get him ahead. The thing that makes him different is that his wrestling takes much less time and he usually ends up deciding in favor of his career, but we are never made to hate him. At times he even seems to be the least flawed and deluded of the film’s three main characters.
Brooks plays Aaron with a kind of wounded, puppyish quality. Mystified by his own lack of success, both professional and romantic, he is always looking at Hunter as if he can’t believe she isn’t getting his signals. He revels in his occasional moments of intellectual pomposity, such as when he quizzes Grunnick on the names of the Cabinet, or sits at home with a book, singing to himself loudly about the fact that he can both read and sing at the same time.
The characters are all recognizably human, none of them completely right. This even-handedness is perhaps best demonstrated in the scene where Hurt coaches Brooks in anchoring technique, and we begin to see that his job simply requires a whole different set of skills, skills which he possesses in spades and which Brooks, for all his smug crowing, clearly does not.
Reveling in shades of gray, and in the inconsistencies present in every person but in precious few movie characters, this film is ultimately that rarest of things: one which does not look down on its characters or its audience, and for that it deserves attention.
– Ben Stephens