As the first act of BROADCAST NEWS ends, a production assistant played by Joan Cusack makes a mad dash to get a tape from the editing bay to the control room during a live news broadcast. During this office space steeple chase, she ducks under file cabinet drawers, shoves aside rolling garbage cans, peels off library carts, and vaults over wandering children. In most slapstick, lowbrow comedies, such shenanigans would be the centrepiece in a mad dash to a predictable finish.
For James L. Brooks though, it’s just the warm-up to something more complicated, and more rewarding.
BROADCAST NEWS begins by introducing us to Jane and Aaron (Holly Hunter and Albert Brooks). She is a TV network news producer, and he is a reporter. Beyond a great working relationship, the two also clearly share an easy-going friendship. During a lacklustre appearance at a conference, Jane meets Tom (William Hurt). Tom is a local anchor and former sports reporter who is keenly aware of his lack of skill. In many ways, he epitomizes when Jane fears: uniformed-yet-attractive people relaying stories to TV viewers. Despite his professional shortcomings, a mild personal connection is made.
That’s a good thing, because shortly thereafter, Tom is hired to work as an anchor under Jane’s direction. This development doesn’t sit well with Aaron, who has long wanted an increased profile as a hard news man.
When the three try to work together, things don’t always go smoothly…and when they try to interact as friends, things often go even worse.
There’s no denying that the way we get our news has changed drastically since the premiere of this film, but as the story played out, I kept asking myself if that is a good thing. To put a point on it, this film arrived when CNN was only seven years old. MSNBC and Fox News were still years away, and so too was any other international 24 hour news network. Back then, the same amount of news happened, we all just chose not to talk it to death for hours at a time.
For newshounds, the film begs the question of we are better off? While it’s undeniable that we like getting our news faster, and that we can learn more about our world than ever before, one wonders if the lack of depth, accuracy and neutrality is too high a price. Part of what allows Tom to ascend as a reporter is having the audacity to place himself within a story. It begins by spelling out the ease of a situation to a subject wanting to brush-off a live mic. It then goes to a whole new level when he can be seen crying while conducting an interview about date-rape.
Such tactics cause Aaron to scoff “Let’s not forget, we’re the real story, not them”, and yet it seems like so often now in an age of the 24-hour news cycle that this has become increasingly true. Not only has the speed of what we want been turned up too high, but rumour has it we want our stories with a certain degree of panache.
What BROADCAST NEWS reminds us is that while we can learn so much more, so much faster, there should still be a respect for standards and ground rules. At one point, Aaron underlines that anchoring a desk is selling a story – but never once does he suggest that the salesman should be a revival preacher, and that he should be selling us horseshit.
The other thing to think about is the state of discontent we find Jane in as the story begins. She gives a lecture about the state of news, bemoaning the fact that precious minutes are being wasted during national broadcasts to show silly human interest stories like “world’s biggest domino display”. One wonders what she would make of the state of news now – an era where the fifth estate can make celebrity weddings lead, and have the line between news and gossip get blurrier every day.
One of the things that keeps BROADCAST NEWS so relevant, is that its core theme of talent versus looks is still so very palpable. It’s fitting that the story begins with a look at the three lead characters as children, since we see this conflict continue in children today. There’s a food chain on playgrounds and in cafeterias, and the top of the chain is still reserved for the rich and the pretty. So many of us learned a hard lesson all the way back then, lessons that we’d be reminded of time and time again. The years might pass and the setting might change, but there was always a cool kids’ table, and many of us never seemed to get asked to sit there.
What’s worse was that the rich and the pretty never understood how much they were lacking. There’s a moment where young Aaron gathers his nerve and declares to some would-be bullies “You’ll never know the pleasure of writing a priceless sentence. Or having an original thought.” To anyone with half a brain, this should be devastating. To the cool kids – it doesn’t even register.
That’s what makes Aaron’s working relationship with Tom so complicated: Aaron has talent, but Tom has looks. Talent can be faked, but looks? It should be enough for Aaron to be great at what he does, but the sight of another good-looking-cool-kid getting what he want throws him off so tragically. What’s sadder still is the fact that Tom realizes just how much he’s lacking in the face of so much talent.
That’s what makes things so very sad and funny. We’re seeing a strong guy and smart guy trying to escape the prison they are in, but they can’t seem to get out because the strong guy doesn’t think he’s smart enough and the smart guy doesn’t think he’s strong enough.
I’ve watched a lot of amazing films for this series – movies directed by James Whale, Frank Capra, Vincent Minnelli, Orson Welles, David Lynch, and Frederico Fellini. I admire all of those artists greatly, and consider myself so much more enlightened for their works I have watched in the name of narrowing my blind spot.
However, at the risk of blasphemy, I must say that two of the best-directed scenes I have watched in the series both came from this film. The first is a glorious piece of direction and editing that comes when Tom has to do his first bit of anchoring. As it plays out, we see the ball get kicked around…from the desk, to the control room, to Tom calling in ideas, to Jane giving direction, to Aaron taking the directions. (Repeat) It’s glorious – as masterful a sequence as you will find in any film.
The other amazing scene is one that had me laughing out loud…and still has me smirking just by thinking back on it. Once again it displays mastery of editing and direction, but this time it all centres around the comedic genius of Albert Brooks…and his sweat.
Besides these two specific scenes, what will stick with me most about BROADCAST NEWS is its intelligence and its writing. It’s a film that never even considered aiming for the lowest common denominator to get its laughs. Instead, it had respect for its audience and catered to that respect with a great deal of wit. It told a tale of professionals who never found themselves in zany situations, or needing to act manic or shrill. The characters in BROADCAST NEWS are genuine, mature, and relate to one-another in a way befitting of mature adults. The net result, twenty-five years later, is a film that still feels as fresh and sharp as the day it premiered, even though so much has changed in the media environment it depicts.
This is the sort of comedy that endures. It’s the level of filmmaking and snappy storytelling that leaves an impression with its audience and holds up to the test of time. It expertly weaves its smirks and smiles into the story of three complicated people dealing with complicated lives.
I wish I could say the same for the highest grossing comedy from the same year.
I post Blind Spot entries on the final Tuesday of every month – apologies to participants as Hot Docs coverage prompted April’s entry to go up early. If you are participating, drop me an email (ryanatthematineedotca) when your post is up and I’ll make sure to link to your entry.
One link so far. Check back in a few days to read more of the round-up for April…
Sean Kelly watched THIS IS SPINAL TAP
SDG watched SIDEWAYS
Andy Hart watched PRINCESS MONONOKE
Steven Flores watched FLOATING WEEDS
Amir watched THE KILLING
Will watched BLACK NARCISSUS
Dan Heaton watched ROAD HOUSE
Bob Turnbull watched SANS SOLEIL and DOG STAR MAN
We have a new participant! Andrew Stewart watched THE GENERAL
Andrew Robinson watched NIGHT OF THE HUNTER