Monday, April 9, 2012

100 Movies - No. 100: Broadcast News

100. Broadcast News (1987)
Comedy, Drama, Romance, 133 minutes
Directed by James L. Brooks
Starring William Hurt, Holly Hunter, Albert Brooks and Jack Nicholson

If you watch television at all, you have almost certainly seen something that James L. Brooks was involved in. He was a writer on Taxi, Lou Grant, Rhoda and the Mary Tyler Moore show and continues to contribute to The Simpsons. His first film, Terms of Endearment, took home five Oscars, with Brooks being credited for three of them.

Broadcast News is a blend of comedy, drama and romance. When I first watched it over 20 years ago, I was disappointed. I didn't think it was interesting, funny or moving in any way. It's strange how our tastes can change over the years. I think I appreciate the film now because I know more about life and can relate to some of the events.

Two brief scenes at the start of the film introduce us to the characters of Tom and Jane. We learn that Tom doesn't mind being beaten up at school because he knows he will have a better career than any of the bullies he has to deal with. Jane shows us a glimpse of her character as she chastises her father for his imprecise use of words.

The story continues with the adult Jane (Hunter) giving a speech about news coverage. She's dismayed at how the networks dumb-down information to appease the audience. When she demonstrates her point with a mindless news article, her audience is more responsive than at any other point in her speech.The only person who admires her presentation is Tom (Hurt) and she asks him to dinner. He presents the news, but reveals that he knows very little about the stories he talks about. Despite that, his employers love what he does and pay him large sums of money.

Jane is obsessed with her job as a producer and can't respect people who are bad at their job. Any chance of romance is ended when she speaks her mind to Tom. She repels men. Hunter got the part which was intended for Debra Winger, but it's hard to imagine anyone else in the role. Her accent and the determination with which her character pursues her career reminds me of Jodie Foster's performance in The Silence of the Lambs.

How often do people succeed on charm or because they have the right look? The film explores that theme throughout as we see Tom take every opportunity that presents itself. In contrast, we see a gifted reporter, Aaron (Brooks), receive no recognition from anyone with the exception of Jane. The two have a deep friendship and confide in each other regularly.

James L. Brooks has a background in news and portrays the high-paced environment to good effect. There's an hilarious scene early in the film in which Jane edits a story just a few seconds before it is due to air, and her assistant (Joan Cusack) has to dodge all manner of unlikely obstacles to deliver the tape on time. Although it's a funny scene, it shows how much pressure is involved in the news business.

Another exceptional scene shows Tom anchoring the news for the first time. Jane knows that he is likely to stumble if he has to think up questions for himself, so she takes care of all the content. Aaron, who is at home getting drunk after being overlooked again, calls in with information which Jane feeds to Tom while he is on the air. The result is a professional broadcast in which Tom is made to look highly competent.

There are a lot of similar scenes which give us a real understanding of how the news business might work. We feel part of that world. However, the film shines because of the acting and the dark comedy. Brooks is the source of much of the humor, but Hurt and Hunter play their parts well. Jack Nicholson has a small role and pulls it off perfectly as you would expect.

There is a love triangle of sorts. Tom is successful, but superficial, and he is interested in Jane. Part of his interest appears to be driven by what she might do for his career. Aaron can see Tom's shortcomings and thinks that he's a more suitable partner for Jane. He clearly loves her as well as being her best friend. Jane is torn between Tom's looks and success, and Aaron's friendship and competence. I'll let you find out the resolution for yourself.

Criterion's Blu-ray presentation is excellent and the film looks better than it ever has. The special features include recent interviews with James L. Brooks and the cast. One of the most interesting features is an alternate ending with comments from Brooks.

Broadcast News is unusual in that it manages to make a technical job appear exciting. I wanted to see what would happen to the three main characters. It's funny throughout in an intelligent way and the romantic element will please some viewers. I can't believe that I failed to see its brilliance when I first watched it over 20 years ago.

If you like Broadcast News:

Director James L. Brooks received much acclaim for his debut, Terms of Endearment, but I must admit that I haven't got around to seeing it yet. I aim to remedy that at the earliest opportunity. One Brooks film that I can heartily recommend is As Good as It Gets, starring Jack Nicholson, Helen Hunt and Greg Kinnear. Like Broadcast News, it expertly blends drama, comedy and romance.

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  1. Nice review. I want to see this. It would be my 4th Brooks film. I loved Terms of Endearment and AGAIG; I hated How do You Know.

  2. I need to see Terms of Endearment. It looks like we have very similar taste. How many of my 100 didn't you like?

  3. Looks like I've seen and liked the majority of films on your list. Yes, we do have similar taste. Some of your favorites are also some of mine. Maybe Avatar is the only one that I really don't like.

  4. A lot of people don't like Avatar. I see all the flaws in the battle in the second half, but I love all the training sequences in the first 90 minutes.