WFTB Score: 9/20
The plot: Serious-minded news producer Jane Craig hates the style-over-content journalism embodied in the likes of glib but handsome sports guy Tom Grunick. That is, at least, until they begin to work together. Meanwhile, brilliant reporter Aaron Altman carries a torch for Jane and a burning ambition to make it as an anchor, but he should be careful what he wishes for.
The world of serious TV news is being flooded by lightweight drivel, but some in the business are still willing to stand against the tide of infotainment. For example, there’s spiky producer Jane (Holly Hunter), who together with intelligent, neurotic reporter friend Aaron (Albert Brooks) rallies against rising star Tom Grunick (William Hurt), a charming but utterly vacuous sports reporter. However, when Tom is brought into the Washington bureau where Jane and Aaron ply their trade, Jane finds him increasingly interesting; firstly, when he’s asked to front an emergency broadcast about the bombing of a NATO base in Sicily, he – with Jane’s and, indirectly, Aaron’s help – presents the story flawlessly. Secondly, he also comes up with an emotional report on date rape which really brings him to the attention of the network heads, not least national anchor Bill Rorich (Jack Nicholson).
Jane finds herself falling for Tom despite her instincts, packing Lois Chiles’ statuesque Laura off to Alaska when she gets too close, while a jealous Aaron struggles with his feelings for Jane and his equally strong pride. Matters come to a head on the night of the Correspondents’ Dinner: Jane plans meticulously for her night of passion with Tom, while Aaron suffers a meltdown during his shot at presenting a routine weekend bulletin. And in the face of swingeing budget cuts at the station, the aftermath could prove life-changing for all three of them.
Though it’s tempting to describe the plot of Broadcast News as a typical love triangle, to do so is not particularly accurate: since Aaron loves Jane, Jane loves Tom, and Tom loves…Tom, it’s more of a love line than a triangle (Aaron has intense feelings about Tom, but they’re certainly not based on love). It may sound like the stuff of soap opera, but the film is lifted by a number of elements, not least the acting from the three leads which is consistently impressive.
In tandem with James L. Brooks’ sharp, funny script (“I say it here, it comes out there”), the trio give us three divergent personalities with great depth of character: Jane’s control freakery is contrasted with her aching – aggressive, even – need to be loved, and her relationship with Aaron – always saying the smart, snippy thing instead of the considerate thing – is fascinatingly balanced. Even the profoundly shallow (if that’s allowed) Tom has interesting nuances – his vanity is a result not of arrogance but of insecurity. These high quality characterisations are ably supported by the likes of Nicholson (fleeting but fabulous), Robert Prosky, Joan Cusack and Peter Hackes.
Well-acted characters, of course, are not the same as likeable, sympathetic characters, and it’s hard to deny that in essence Broadcast News is a tale of materially-comfortable yet endlessly self-pitying media professionals. Just as failing to cry didn’t soften Cameron Diaz up in The Holiday, it’s hard to feel too much for Jane’s solitary tears when she makes life so damn difficult for herself; and the same goes for Aaron, who would be quite cuddly if he wasn’t such a jerk.
As for Tom, he has women throwing themselves at him and a meteoric career path ahead, yet he’s troubled by a lack of integrity? No violins, please. Still, the impressive, credible execution of scenes such as Tom’s first broadcast and Aaron’s sweaty disaster compensates for bits which don’t come off so well, for example the prologue showing the protagonists as kids, which is an overly cutesy touch; or the cosy ‘seven years later’ epilogue which, since we’ve never really come to care for our leads, feels redundant. There are also things the film can’t help, such as how silly some of the hairstyles now look (Cusack comes off particularly badly), how chunky the videotapes are, and the slightly awkward (in retrospect) use of Libya’s ex-Colonel Gaddafi as America’s bad guy du jour.
Broadcast News is a difficult beast, a film whose quality of writing and performance is unquestionable, but also a film which left me feeling lukewarm towards the characters I should surely wish well or root for somewhere along the way. Perhaps, like having big hair or wearing shoulder pads, it was easier to empathise with dysfunctional high-achievers in the 80s without feeling too ridiculous.
NOTES: One final thing – I’ve not mentioned it in the review because I’ve not yet seen it, but I get the distinct impression that this movie lives in the shadow of Network, which I very much want to see.