Watching Broadcast News twenty years after release it’s interesting to note that the film hasn’t been vaulted into the category of films like Network or A Face in the Crowd for being a prophetic film about what’s happened to journalism. Perhaps because it cuts deeper to the bone. And though it may not be the go-to for the state of journalism, it’s just as on-point as any satire of TV journalism. Holly Hunter stars as Jane Craig, a segment producer for network television’s evening news. She’s good friends and colleagues with Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks), who’s nursed a crush on her so long that it is a habit of their friendship, and their platonic bond is disrupted when Tom Grunick (William Hurt) enters the pictures. He’s the handsome but vacuous new talent, who knows he’s out of his depth but also knows how to anchor. My review of the Blu-ray Criterion edition of Broadcast News follows after the jump.
The film starts showing the three as children. Altman is preternaturally bright, socially awkward, and alienating from the get-go. Tom is considered a hot ticket as a kid, while Jane is a type-A tweener. The film then shifts to them as adults, as Tom comes to a conference where Jane is trying to talk about how real news is taking second place to cute cats and kicker stories. But the audience is more into the bullshit than the hard facts. Tom introduces himself, they go back to her hotel room and Jane wants to have sex with him, but it gets weird – especially when Tom reveals that he’s about to go to work for her.
Aaron does a lot of remote spots but wants to anchor, and with an upcoming series of cutbacks he’s worried that his neck might be on the chopping block. Tom may be an idiot and know nothing about the current political situation, or how many people are on the Supreme Court, but when he gets behind the desk or asks questions in an interview, he looks and sounds the part. But how far he’s willing to go to look good is also a question.
What James L. Brooks’s masterpiece does in a much more subtle way than Network or Face in the Crowd is go the T.S. Elliot route, not with a bang but a whimper. And where Paddy Chayefsky’s script can be said (as with A Face in the Crowd) to predict people like Glenn Beck, it does so with a level of vitriol and one dimensional characters that makes it cartoonish. Network is an angry piece, but it’s more easily dismissed than Broadcast News, because News gets at some core truths. And one of them is that Jane Craig – while knowing that everything Aaron says about Tom is true, and knowing from experience that he’s kind of stupid – wants to fuck Tom anyway. And where Network suggests that people are suckers, and that loud bangs and outrageous behavior draws ratings, what News says is that even when we know we’re dumbing ourselves down, or falling for a liar or cheat, we still can’t help that some things and people are attractive, regardless of our intellectual desires.
In the alternate endings, Brooks goes even more cynical, but this film shows where news has gone in a lot of ways more than Network. Toward bland pointlessness, to people hosting the news that are “readers.”
The three leads are so perfect in this film, and so on point that it’s hard to single out one above the other. Nerds such as myself will gravitate to the truth-telling but sexually repressed Altman. And there’s no denying that this is Albert Brooks’s best role in a film he didn’t direct. From getting drunk, reading, and singing at the same time, to him calling Tom the devil, he’s note perfect. But then there’s William Hurt, playing a character who knows his limitations but manages to make every bad decision believable while also understanding and knowing his wheelhouse. He has a scene where he coaches Aaron on how to anchor the news, and he obviously knows what he’s doing at that. It’s a reat scene where you can see the skills he has are important for presentation, and he understands presentation – not content (and Aaron vice versa, somewhat). It’s a skill and he’s got it down. Then there’s Holly Hunter. Though Brooks was made legendary for his work on the Mary Tyler Moore Show, Hunter is no Moore, but what she is, is a fully fleshed out neurotic character. And Hunter anchors the film as the surrogate torn between doing her job well, and knowing that Tom is actually a bad thing. Brooks had problems ending the film, and there was a reshoot that added a slightly unnatural denouement, but it feels necessary, if the film’s only slightly off key moment. Broadcast News is a sneaky masterwork, because it says something about how News has progressed in this country, but it’s just as insightful about humans and our desires as it about the culture of reporting.
The Criterion Blu-ray presents the film in widescreen (1.85:1) and in 2.0 Dolby Surround. The presentation is immaculate. The film also comes with a commentary by James L. Brooks and editor Richard Marks. Brooks needs someone to bounce off of, and it’s a solid commentary track worth listening to. It’s complimented by the film’s alternate ending (10 min.) and deleted scenes (19 min.) with commentary by the two. There was a subplot that puts Tom in with a source, but it also tips the movie’s hand a little bit too much (though I like what it says thematically about who Tom is). The main new supplement is a documentary on Brooks called “A Singular Voice” (36 min.), which covers his career, and gets comments from Julie Cavner, Hans Zimmer, Wes Anderson, Marilu Henner, Al Jean, Ken Tucker, Jeffery Berg, and with clips from The Simpsons, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Taxi, and more. It’s a talking heads piece, but definitely engaging. There’s an interview with Susan Zirinski (17 min.), and she talks about what it is to be a female news producer, and being a model for Hunter’s performance and character. Also included are a period featurette (8 min.) On set footage and interviews (19 min.), and the film’s theatrical trailer.