The Criterion Completist – Broadcast News (1987)
written by: James L. Brooks
produced by: James L. Brooks
directed by: James L. Brooks
runtime: 132 min.
U.S. release date: December 16, 1987
DVD/Blu-ray Criterion Collection release date: January 24, 2011
Every decade has one defining film about the state of journalism and the media in this country. The 1970s had “Network” (close tie with “All the President’s Men”), the 1990s had “The Insider”, the 2000s had “Shattered Glass”, and for the 1980s, this honor surely belongs to James Brooks’ “Broadcast News”. Unfortunately, as the quality of modern journalism continues to slide into sensationalism and “soft” news reporting, these films feel more and more like artifacts of a forgotten time and place.
Writer-producer-director James L. Brooks uses the high-pressure environment of a Washington news bureau as a setting for a complex love triangle between the smart, wily veteran reporter Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks), his friend and puppy dog love interest, producer Jane Craig (Holly Hunter), and the dim yet attractive anchorman Tom Grunick (William Hurt). If nothing else, “Broadcast News” succeeds as a romantic comedy. No scene is obvious or predictable, and the relationships between the three leads are refreshingly realistic and mature. Holly Hunter’s breakout performance as Jane Craig is one example. Unlike other women-cracking-the-glass-ceiling flicks of the 80s such as “Working Girl” or “9 to 5”, Hunter plays Jane as a woman who is unable to draw a distinction between her professional life and personal lives, and is suffering as a result. She trusts and respects the smart and reliable Altman, yet is attracted to and more intrigued by the guileless Grunick.
William Hurt’s Grunick offers the best performance of the film – a humble, complex character that is never quite as dumb as you think, or as malicious as these films usually require. Indeed, James L. Brooks seems aware of every crappy, formulaic rom-com trope and seems determined to smash them all with smart, crackling dialogue and nuanced, realistic performances by the three excellent leads. As for a perpetual theme that he would explore throughout his career, Brooks’ Altman knows that no matter how good looking, or smart, or successful you might be, it’s never easy to tell someone that you love them.
It is telling that by writing a near-perfect romantic comedy, that the setting could really be anywhere. Brooks could have these characters working in a restaurant or an auto-body shop and the feeling would be the same, but instead he chose a news station. The question then becomes: does the film work as a commentary on journalism as well?
James L. Brooks, who had worked with CBS news in the 1960s, definitely know his way around a newsroom. The best and perhaps most famous scene has Grunick anchoring a breaking news story while Jane reads info and lines into his earpiece. Brooks films it as an action scene, and it has a nail-biting intensity to it. He also foresees the downfall of national broadcasting, from the cutbacks of the major news corporations to the slow descent into more sensational stories. By adding the relationship angle to a high-pressure media environment, “Broadcast News” acted as an inspiration to writers such as Aaron Sorkin and his later shows like “Sports Night” and “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip”.
“Broadcast News” has somewhat of a time capsule feel to it, and serves as an excellent artifact of the 1980s. Characters buy and read newspapers, call each other on actual telephones, and record television on video tapes, while those Reagan-era buzzwords like “Nicaragua”, “El Salvador” and “Libya” float throughout the film like historical dust motes. Perhaps most tellingly, is the passion that these people have for the news, and the care and effort they put forth in creating a real and true broadcast. Sadly, that is something lost and forgotten today.
Criterion has given “Broadcast News” the usual lavish treatment, with an entire second disc of documentaries and interviews, including an alternate ending (which thankfully, wasn’t used). Despite the hi-def digital transfer, I found parts of the film to be a bit grainy, surprising considering the relatively recent release, but otherwise, consider this an essential addition to any film collection.
Matt Streets saw his first film in 1980, when his parents took him to see Robert Altman’s “Popeye” at the Tivoli Theater in Downers Grove, IL. Since that rocky start, he has become a lifelong movie fan, and has written film reviews on and off since giving “Medicine Man” two stars for his high school newspaper back in 1992. He is currently attempting the insane feat of watching every single film in the Criterion Collection as The Criterion Completist.