Broadcast News (1987)

Dir. James L. Brooks. Starring Holly Hunter, William Hurt, Albert Brooks

Within a stretch of about twenty minutes, each of the principals in this movie has a moment where s/he asks someone else to hold on for a minute. Tom and Aaron (Hurt and Brooks) ask Jane (Hunter) to hold on for a second while they get their thoughts together just minutes apart. A little while later, Jane will ask Aaron to sit still a while longer with her. So much of this movie comes at high speed – it is about the news, after all – that each of those moments where someone implores another to slow down and wait stands out. Tom asks Jane to slow down because he simply doesn’t think that fast. Aaron asks Jane to wait because for the first time in his life, he doesn’t have the words available to make whatever devastatingly intelligent comment he wants to make. Jane asks Aaron to slow down because she has just watched her professional life shatter due to financial forces beyond her control. Each person is defined, in some small way, through those pauses. It turns out that Tom, as much as anything else, is indecisive. He could make a bolder statement about not wanting Jane to go see another man as the middle act in their date. And it turns out that Aaron is petulant, and that his disappointment is so gross that he becomes nasty to the woman he loves. And most interestingly, it turns out that for all of the stress and indecision and self-doubt that Jane feels, she also can’t imagine moving on from this part of her life. From a certain perspective, she’s been liberated. She’s about to be the bureau chief of a major news outlet in Washington D.C., with the favor of both corporate types (like Paul, played by Peter Hackes) and on-screen talent (like Bill Rorish, played by Brooks muse Jack Nicholson). She has, from a certain perspective, been saved from a relationship not just with a vapid man but from a potential relationship with a secretly ugly one. And as she tells Aaron not to leave just yet from that little restaurant, it’s clear that she didn’t want to let go of her inferior positions, either professional or social.

Jane Craig is one of the most interesting characters ever put in a movie, and Hunter’s performance is, in a decade dominated by Meryl Streep and Glenn Close, sneakily one of the two or three best of the 1980s. Jane is probably best known (to audiences) as the woman who has to begin each day with a sustained ten to fifteen second sob, which, once released, is replaced with a smile or some other show of centered contentment. At first glance this something that a deeply troubled person does; one thinks of it when Tom’s dad (Stephen Mendillo) gets one taste of Jane and tells his son that she is not an “affectionate” person, as if she is somehow deficient as a woman because of it. The more Jane does it, though, the more it acquires this nearly zen quality, the way some people start their day with meditation or prayer or the elliptical machine. It balances her. Some aspects of her own life she seems terribly knowledgeable about, such as that need for self-control. She also can tell, down to the second, it turns out, just how much time she has to alter a feature story before it has to air live. She knows how she feels about the encroaching tide of star power and soft news and their ability to destroy hard network stories. What’s striking about the film is that it does not take much time to wonder at her agility, poise, and brilliance at work. One might forgive the ’80s for praising her, for highlighting how good she is at work, to say “Look at this woman in charge!” This is what Working Girl, which postdates Broadcast News, indulges in frequently. But no one does that here, except for Paul. (There’s a marvelous moment which thumbs the eye of just about every exec who’s ever thought a woman wasn’t strong enough to hold her position: while Jane screams for something to get done, Paul, eyes wide, exhales, “I had no idea she was this good.”) Jane is simply infallible when she’s at work. Her greatest coup comes not with Aaron, who is a superb reporter and incredibly learned, but with Tom, who is not so bright. A Libyan fighter shoots up an American base in Sicily, and Paul, over Jane’s strenuous objections, decides to put Tom in the anchor’s chair instead of Aaron, who has a history studying Gaddafi. Jane, in a Stokowski-esque performance stretching over minutes, fields tips from Aaron over the phone, says the words Tom needs to say a half-second before he has to say them, and of course produces the segment. One shot places us just behind William Hurt’s ear, where Holly Hunter’s voice is coolly streaming through; we look up at her in her booth on high. It’s really the voice of God.

Despite all that, she doesn’t know quite what she’s looking for romantically or what to do with her sex life. Can you blame her? It’s never been a priority, never been something that she’s been challenged to think about in her own experience. I don’t know what I’d feel if someone transplanted me and my life to China at a moment’s notice because it’s never happened before; why should she know what it’s like to fall for someone who, professionally, falls so far below her standard? When Aaron comes to learn that she’s into Tom and not him, he calls Tom “the Devil.” Jane huffs at him, but Aaron counters by saying that if the Devil came to Earth, he would not be able to cavort around with his tail sticking out. He will be nice. He will be polite. He will be handsome. And “he will just bit by bit lower our standards where they are important.” Aaron is right about the standards bit – he shows off how unimpressed he is with a melodramatic piece Tom did by himself about date-rape, and is shushed by a room full of his peers who ought to know better – but he’s wrong about how that comment will affect Jane. Aaron assumes that there’s something planned about Jane’s infatuation, like she chose to be attracted to Tom, but there’s not. Jane is so perfect, Aaron presumes, that she can channel Spock in her sex life as neatly as she does at work. The funny thing is that watching her, I certainly assumed she could – she just would have had to think about it beforehand.

William Hurt, who was not the box office draw in the ’80s that Stallone or Ford or Cruise might have been, is still a key star from the period for the Oscar-circuit moviegoer. (The fact that Hunter and occasionally Brooks outshine him seems unusual.) Whether or not he’s likable in The Big Chill is mostly unimportant – spoiler, no one in The Big Chill is likable and when a Millennial makes a film that self-indulgent every Boomer will forget that they inhaled sharply at The Big Chill – but he is certainly the person who makes us sit up and take notice. He won an Oscar for Kiss of the Spider Woman, won more acclaim and another nomination for Children of a Lesser God, and went into Broadcast News scorching and still under forty. Hurt lends much of that prestige and still-on-the-way-up sense to Tom Grunick, who has not failed at much of anything since he was a kid who couldn’t do well in school. Tom’s great flaw, in the end, is not his lack of intelligence but his deep-seated inadequacy. More than once Aaron points out that it’s not nice for Tom, whose career is riding a rocket, to feel like he’s somehow failing. Jane, in one of their early meetings, is less kind. If you feel so bad about being clueless and bad at your job, she says, then fix the problem instead of whining about it. Tom never does fix it. He continues to fall up – when half the D.C. bureau is let go because of budget constraints, Tom accidentally gets promoted to a gig in London – and never does learn to educate himself. When he ultimately gets the top job, he does not take the typically corresponding position of managing editor. He tells a room full of people that he doesn’t think he’s qualified for the job. He’s right, but they laugh anyway. How modest! And yet it’s a modesty which is loathsome. Jane and Aaron believe in meritocracy, but neither one of them really understands that there can be a meaning to meritocracy different from the one they share. Tom doesn’t seem to understand it either, but from this entrenched network position, his good looks and strong presence in front of a camera are what merit promotion. (When Aaron gets in front of a camera, his flop sweat results in one of the funniest scenes in the past fifty years. Seriously. It’s up there with the Pythons and Mel Brooks.)

One of the things I respect about Broadcast News is its final act. The rumors of budget cuts have been hanging around the bureau for some time, but the hammer falls in a way that yields just one funny line: Joan Cusack, giving her farewell to Holly Hunter, tells her boss that she’s her hero in every way…except socially. In what had been a fairly straight romantic/workplace comedy, Brooks’ willingness to linger on a very real threat to livelihoods and careers is surprising but not unwelcome. Terms of Endearment, the only other feature Brooks had directed to this point, had built sadness and regret into the film almost immediately. Broadcast News, which does not have to weather anything quite like cancer, still manages to shoulder the pain of its cast, which is larger in these moments than we had ever realized previously. Bill Rorish stands around impressively but distantly as he watches the hammer fall on littler people. Folks mill around with their office possessions in boxes. Only one person really gets mad; everyone else is a little too heartbroken to lose their tempers. Network assumed that television news would be obliterated by the quest for ratings, and they were right. But Broadcast News, while recognizing the power that ratings hold (Bill notes that none of this might have happened if they’d figured out how to program Wednesday night), finds a more prosaic cause for the end of decent national news: the bottom line itself. We never get the sense that no one’s watching the 60 Minutes-ish segment that they’re running, though the film, wisely, severely limits the number of people we see doing so. Yet the money still isn’t there; the way to get some of that back is to cut out the people who don’t obviously promote viewership. It just means that, like the Devil always planned, standards will be lowered bit by little bit.


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