Brooks: Broadcast News (1987)

Broadcast News was probably the most ambitious American film about newsrooms since Network – or at least that’s how it was billed. Yet this is one of the strangest workplace dramedies of the 80s, since it’s really just a romantic drama, a love triangle that almost entirely leaves its journalism backdrop behind by the closing scenes. We start with what appears to be a fairly promising professional backdrop – the decline of local television news and the rise of a new generation of corporate news conglomerates. We meet all three of our main characters at the Conference of Local Television News Broadcasters – Jane Craig (Holly Hunter), a producer, Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks), a writer, and Tom Grunick (William Hurt), an anchorman. Jane and Aaron have worked at the same Washington D.C. bureau for many years, and are “principled,” while Tom is a new hire, and is (supposedly) more “superficial.” 

For all the hard-hitting braggadocio and professional know-how of the first few scenes, Broadcast News is barely interested in the news, or in the specificities of this particular workplace. Instead, director James Brooks draws on the progressive legacy of the newsroom in American cinema. From the silent era up until the present days, newsrooms have been one of the workplaces where Hollywood can genuinely envisage equality between the sexes. In Brooks’ hands, however, this legacy becomes a source of anxiety, as the film questions how gender equity, and identity politics, might sit alongside a more conservative yuppie mobility. 

Accordingly, we start with a trio of characters who are all in a precarious position – on the cusp of what they perceive to be drastic downward mobility, and therefore unable to figure out their status. In one of his first conversations with Jane, Tom reflects that he is paid well, but that he lacks value. Around the same time, Aaron tells Jane that he feels as if he’s “slipping,” but that he’s also unsure whether people who are genuinely slipping ever truly feel as if they are. Is it possible, he muses, that the very feeling of “slipping” is itself an indication of upward mobility? As these two examples might suggest, Jane has to do a lot of work reassuring Tom and Aaron of their status, which reinforces her own sense of precarity as well. At multiple junctures through the film (starting with the opening credit sequence) she lurches abruptly from crying to laughing (or vice versa) making it difficult to ever discern her mood.

There’s not much to the characters beyond this anxiety about downward mobility, apart from their various hot takes on “reality” and “media” – as sophomoric as Albert Brooks’ Real Life – and even these diminish by the end of the first act, when James L. Brooks stops pretending that this is a genuine media drama. Broadcast News was his last film before working on The Simpsons, and at times the three main leads here feel like animated characters – that they would be more animated (and realistic) if they were actually and literally animated. Like animated characters, they subsist more on a series of distinctive tics than any regular realistic continuity, which makes them quite irritating to watch if you’re not fully on board with them.

During the first act, we still get hints of a hard-hitting newsroom drama, or a fly-on-the-wall look at a workplace, but this all devolves into a generic romantic drama pretty quickly. Jane starts out with really strong opinions about the news, but she rapidly turns into a generic romantic lead with a generic romantic quandary – does she choose the handsome guy with no integrity (Hurt) or the nice guy who’s not handsome (Brooks)? No surprise that the first discussion of professional ethics devolves into a single silly question – can you tell a source you’re in love with them? I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting from the film, but it certainly involved a specific workplace. Yet it’s almost impossible to gauge much about the character and scale of this news station, or the differences and dynamics that animate it all.

In lieu of a compelling news film, Brooks goes for screwball, which partly emerged out of newsroom comedies in the 1930s. Yet this is a bad-faith screwball, the letter of screwball without the spirit, since it’s essentially opposed to the exploratory gender politics that made those comedies of the 30s so visionary. As a result, the film quickly descends into a tiresome slapstick register, full of characters manoeuvring their way around other objects and people a little more awkwardly than they need to. Even when they’re stationary, the characters are typically standing a little too close, so that other people feel like potential obstacles if and when they have to break away. It’s unfortunate that Jack Nicholson makes an uncredited cameo as one of the main anchors for the station, since his presence immediately puts Brooks’ hammy tableaux to shame with a reminder of what real comic timing and charisma looks like. 

This denuded screwball produces weird pauses and lapses in tone, as if the actors are continually forgetting their lines – as if there are too many beats in the script, which clocks up to over two hours. Music often fills in these ellipses, but the musical cues are so mismatched that it exacerbates the alienation effect, or the lack of a proper cinema effect. It’s like Brooks wants these three actors in the same film but can’t figure out how to connect them, resulting in long scenes where Hunt, Hurt or Brooks linger on the edges of the action, or in solo scenes, waiting patiently to come back into the spotlight, meaning the film never quite materialises.

On top of all that, most of the comedy is reactive – Brooks is perpetually cutting to reaction shots – and yet there’s no taste for reaction here. Whether due to direction or editing, the reactions are totally dissonant – they feel undirected, or unedited – rendering the blocking and body language dissonant too. Time and again, the three main characters find themselves marooned in the midst of space, as Brooks scrambles for odd close-ups, manic sub-screwball sequences, or bizarre romantic interludes to make it all hang together. Beyond a certain point, Hunter, Hurt and Brooks are just playing their residual screen personae, which works for Hunter, but not so much for Hurt and Brooks, and especially not for Brooks, who doesn’t give much here apart from a general awareness of being the most intelligent person in any scene.

Put bluntly, then, this is a romantic drama in which Jane has to choose between the smart man (Aaron) and the attractive man (Tom), even though Aaron’s not that smart, and Tom’s not that attractive. Aaron is petulant about not being good looking (he chucks a tantrum when he’s not chosen for news anchor) and Tom is petulant about being too good looking (he constantly laments his superficiality), devolving this news drama into a pair of men desperate to prop up their pathetic self-image. Both of them are limp, whiny and self-pitying, a case study in fragile male egos, and both of them need Jane to tell them how smart and desirable they are. That makes the second act a real bummer, especially for an actor as gifted as Hunter, since Jane utterly discards her professional persona to become a life coach for her two colleagues. No wonder that her crying and laughing gets even more manic during this period.

Conversely, we hear remarkably little about Jane’s own aspirations as the film goes on, despite the fact that she was initially introduced as a strong spokeswoman for the integrity of the news, the importance of local news, and the importance of professional ethics. It’s the epitome of a female role written and directed by men – no doubt it concedes a certain amount of latitude to the working woman, but far less than any of its screwy 1930s forebears, which it represses quite aggressively by shoehorning Jane into this thankless romantic labor. 

Aaron is especially noxious – a self-pitying pseudo-intellectual who bridges Woody Allen’s persona in Manhattan with Ross’ toxic “nice guy” persona in Friends. He resorts to day drinking when he’s not chosen for anchor, even though he clearly doesn’t have the looks for it, and even though he seems to judge Jane herself first and foremost on her looks. In the nastiest turn of the film, he blathers over a segment that Tom composes on the (then) newly described phenomenon of date rape, turning a survivor’s testimony into a canvas for his megalomaniacal self-pity. He dismisses it as fake news, even though the issue of date rape was surely as important for American viewers as the “political” news he extols. He thereby shows how dated he really is, since this date rape story is the one progressive part of the film – and feels remarkably ahead of its time in the way it understands the difficulty of testimony.

Aaron’s response to the date rape segment is, in a sense, is the real drama of the film – or what feels like the drama some thirty years later. James L. Brooks might wrap this all up in a cute romantic triangle, but what we really have here is a reflection of how professional options for women were curtailed, in some ways, by a new yuppie conservatism. Jane starts as a passionate news producer, but quickly learns that her fate is to choose between a boring Adonis (supposedly) and an intelligent (supposedly) boor. Intelligence here means Aaron talking loudly over a date rape survivor, and then talking over Jane when she tries to quiet him down. No wonder, then, that a deep depression seems to settle over the film, even or especially when it tries to be comic, as the narrative slackens and Brooks has to resort to a pretty contrived denouement via a cutback, an arbitrary crisis that rearranges the main trio.

All three of them do quite well, and yet the film’s depression continues, so thoroughly has Jane been contained by this point. Aaron quits on his own terms for a position in Portland, Tom is promoted to London, and Jane is put in charge of the station – and yet at the very moment at which she is professionally remunerated, toxic masculinity recurs to cloud her achievement. Of course, it comes in the form of Aaron, who pompously proves to her that Tom only pretended to cry in his interview with the date rape survivor. No matter that this is a legitimate way to signal pathos to an audience who might be sceptical whether date rape even exists, no matter that Tom actually did cry in the interview but happened to be off-camera, and no matter that the date rape conversation should always remain focused on the survivor. Once again, Aaron uses date rape as a mere platform for his own pompous pontification, displacing any notion that integrity might lie in simply being quiet and listening.

At this point, the film reaches a kind of cognitive dissonance, a limit to its bizarre project of fusing screwball and yuppiedom into a new kind of conservative-liberal alliance. In effect, Brooks tries to envisage a post-feminist future, or a more corporate third wave feminism, but he can never make it plausible, just because he can never plausibly suggest that the lessons of feminism are redundant, or that the project of feminism is properly over. If anything, the film reiterates the need for feminism, as it seems to acknowledge in an odd epilogue, which takes place several years later, after Jane has rejected both Tom and Aaron to forge her career as a single woman. In any kind of film, this might be a radical ending, but here it feels grudging, a concession that no other ending is really possible, given the film’s ideological outlook – even though every scene, shot and beat in Broadcast News mitigates against Jane’s independence. 

About Billy Stevenson (704 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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