Thirty years after the release of Broadcast News, the movie looks awfully old-fashioned. Journalists are tethered to telephone cords; reporters use stopwatches to time their voice-overs and production assistants ferry giant videotapes to and fro; shoulder pads are as wide as the generation gap. The first time we see Holly Hunter, playing TV news producer Jane Craig, she’s power-walking in leg warmers and a lavender tracksuit jacket with reflective stripes. Elbows high, arms pumping, she marches up to a phalanx of six (six. SIX!) newspaper boxes and stuffs a quarter into each one, then powers on up to a parking garage with a huge stack of papers tucked under one arm.
We no longer live in a world in which six newspaper boxes sit side by side. Ten minutes into the movie, I worried that Broadcast News, like almost every other movie of my ’80s youth, had aged horribly.
I needn’t have fretted. It’s still hilarious and feels more timely than ever. It seems relevant about two things in particular: the challenges of journalism in a changing time, and the reality of guys being sexually gross.
Broadcast News is the story of Jane and her colleagues Aaron and Tom. Aaron (Albert Brooks) is a nebbishy foreign correspondent who’s a brilliant deadline writer and an absolute disaster behind an anchor’s desk. Tom (William Hurt) is a handsome, blow-dried sports-desk dude who’s been promoted to news, way beyond his competency. There’s sparky attraction and inappropriate behavior and genius one-liners (watching Aaron crash and burn and wilt and drip during his lone anchorman stint, an awed onlooker whispers, “This is more than Nixon ever sweated!”). Director James L. Brooks lingers on his actors’ faces during reaction shots; a zillion micro-expressions flit across Hunter’s and Hurt’s features. It’s thrilling to watch. Tom could so easily be the villain of the piece—he’s ambitious and calculating and uninformed—but Brooks gives him redeeming features, too. He’s genuinely delighted, like a kid, by the excitement of live news, and he’s attracted to Jane because of—not in spite of—how amazing she is at her job. He tries to help Aaron improve his on-camera performance, even though Aaron constantly belittles him. One moment we see him working a room and think how shallow he is, how dangerous to the craft of journalism; the next moment he spots Jane in a fancy Victor Costa dress (currently for sale, FYI, if you have $250 and wear a size 4-6) and his face lights up like the sun; he clutches his chest hammily; and he abandons everyone he’s schmoozing to make a beeline for her. We get why she’s smitten.
And we sense James L. Brooks’ love for the news business. A nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn who dropped out of NYU, became a page at CBS, and worked his way up to network news writer, he used his journalism background to inform his work on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Lou Grant. And he’s interested in women’s interior lives (his other big movie hit was Terms of Endearment). According to the great film critic Carrie Rickey, Brooks kept waffling about which guy Jane should end up with. “Like the makers of Casablanca, Brooks started production not knowing whether his heroine would fly off with one guy or stay on the ground with the other,” she wrote. “He shot the film in continuity, so that Jane might wind up with either, and made two alternate endings.” But it’s clear throughout the film that Jane’s deepest, truest love is journalism. Rickey notes: “Unlike those other 1980s women-in-shoulder-pads films, 9 to 5, Baby Boom, and Working Girl … Broadcast News is not a fantasy of how females can change the workplace. It is a comedic, but also realistic, look at workaholics, female and male.” (The movie was written and directed by Brooks, and produced by Brooks and four women.)
The way the film plays with sexist movie tropes is delightful: Tom plays the dumb blond. There’s no testosterone-drenched car chase scene, but we get Joan Cusack in a boho peasant dress racing through the newsroom to get a videotape to the control room seconds before airtime. Instead of sliding across the hood of a Mustang, she slides under the open door of a file cabinet. (She also leaps over a visiting toddler and slams into the side of a water cooler. In a terrific piece on the movie for The Ringer, Haley Mlotek notes that the scene was shot by Michael Ballhaus, the Academy Award-winning cinematographer who went on to shoot the single-take two-and-a-half minute tracking shot in Goodfellas.)
The heart of the movie is Hunter. She was hilarious and moving in Raising Arizona, also released in 1987 (her sobbing “Ah love him so muh-huh-huh-huch!” to Nicolas Cage’s character seconds after they’ve kidnapped a baby is two seconds of crystalline comic genius), but her Jane feels real as well as funny. The way she briskly schedules time in her day to cry for 20 seconds; the way she yells in the office but also showers her staff with sincere thanks; the way she fiercely guards her ethical principles. She needs to be true to herself even when it hurts her, and she knows it. She’s attracted to Tom straightaway, but still snaps at him, “You personify something I truly think is dangerous: ‘Oh, I don’t write; I’m not schooled; I don’t understand the news I’m reading … but at least I’m upset about it, folks!’” She rants to a room of TV journos about the pernicious influence of Entertainment Tonight and the dangers of news being viewed as a profit center. Bored listeners trickle out of the room; she knows she’s bombing, yet she soldiers on: “Not one network noted a major policy change in the SALT II nuclear-disarmament talks—here’s what they ran instead. Show the tape.” It’s a Japanese domino championship, waves of little bricks collapsing in swirling eddies and setting off fireworks. The audience starts clapping, cooing, returning to their seats. Jane bellows, “I know it’s fun! I like fun! It’s just not news!”
What makes the movie feel so of-the-moment is, for some of us, the pervasive feeling that journalism is doomed. Broadcast News is set against a backdrop of huge cutbacks at the news division. Network TV news is in utter free-fall now, even more precipitously than when the film was made. In 1985, 48 million Americans watched one of the three major networks’ newscasts every night. By 2013, only 24.5 million did, according to a Pew analysis of Nielsen Media Research data. From 2016 to 2017 alone, regular network news viewership declined four percentage points. Last year, for the first time, cable TV news surpassed network news in popularity.
And when you look at younger viewers, the picture for network news is even grimmer: Only 8 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds said they “often” got their news from network TV, compared to 49 percent of those 65 and older. More and more of us get our news through social media. College-educated adults are far less likely to watch network news than less educated adults.
Ironically, Aaron’s decision to leave D.C. for “the No. 2 station in Portland” now looks pretty smart; in 2017, more people watched local than national news. It’s all pretty bleak for network news folks like Tom and Jane.
On the other hand, in 2017 we consumed far more media than we did a decade ago, thanks in large part to digital media. Online news consumption is rising, and in the wake of Trump, Washington Post and New York Times subscription rates have skyrocketed. The ethical standards the film dreys about do still exist; witness Brian Williams’ fall from network-anchor grace and newspaper writers getting fired for plagiarism. So while we’re struggling to “monetize” (horrid word) the news business in an age when no one wants to pay for content and the advertising business is also in flux, the unmitigated gloom of the picture painted by the film doesn’t seem warranted.
It’s even more fascinating to ponder the movie’s portrayal of sex in the workplace. Jane, who makes the first move with Tom, is his producer and mentor. It’s certainly inappropriate for them to hook up. And she’s both attracted to him and appalled by him. He’s way into her, but also maybe using her. (After his first successful anchor gig, when she’s feeding him lines via headset—there’s a great shot of her framed in a window behind him, whispering the words just before he says them—he exults, “What a feeling, having you inside my head … there was a rhythm we got into—it was like great sex!” Aaron’s disgusted reaction: “What’s the next step, lip syncing?”) This is complicated, like real life.
Aaron is the character who seems the most of the moment … and the most at risk of experiencing a #metoo moment. Critics in 1987 were utterly charmed by him moaning to Jane, “Wouldn’t this be a great world if insecurity and desperation made us more attractive? If needy were a turn-on?” But to modern-day female ears, he sounds like the genial-yet-seething dudes so many of us have encountered who inform us that women don’t want “nice guys.” Aaron repeatedly tells Jane he’s attracted to her, despite her never giving him the slightest hint his feelings are reciprocated. He’s furious that she wants Tom, who he compares to the devil. “He will just, bit by little bit, lower our standards where they’re important,” Aaron rants to Jane. “And he’ll talk about all of us really being salesmen. And he’ll get all the great women.” He can’t not append his sexual jealousy to any legitimate criticism he has of Tom. “He personifies everything that you’ve been fighting against,” he bitterly tells Jane later. “And I’m in love with you. How do you like that? I buried the lede.” Ugh, no. Not cute. But what’s unforgivable is when he grabs Jane’s face in his hands and kisses her hard on the mouth after she’s gone to his house to comfort him after his disastrous anchor attempt. First, he tells her he wishes she were two people: his friend and “the one I like so much.” (In the original script, he says “the one I’m in l— I don’t think I should go any further.”) She doesn’t kiss him back. He says, in his self-deprecating way, “Well, I felt something.” She laughs. That’s not in the script; there’s no stage direction. It is, however, what a lot of us do when we’re freaked out.
There’s also an interesting dynamic at play when Tom submits his first reported piece, a story about date rape. As his source tells her story, the camera catches a tear rolling down Tom’s cheek. “Sex, tears—this must be the news!” Aaron sneers. The women in the office are all moved by the story, but Aaron tells Tom, “Congratulations. You just blew the lid off nookie.”
The women know that it wasn’t nookie. Aaron’s response feels totally out-of-sync with current mores. And this is the point at which he lost me completely. Later in the film, in a moment of anger, he insults Jane in the most hurtful way. Her face crumples (Oh, Holly Hunter! Your reaction faces!) and he tries to apologize by backpedaling and saying “We’ll always be friends. We’ll get hot for each other every few years at dinner and never act on it, OK?” Hunter’s face, again, says what the script doesn’t: She’ll never get hot for him. The fact that she still wants his friendship, though, is what makes this movie feel so emotional and full of pathos. Like Tom, Aaron is deeply flawed. And again, we still understand why Jane likes him: Aaron is smart, funny, and as passionate about the news business as she is.
What we don’t know then is that when it comes to the date rape story, Tom’s behavior is perhaps as loaded as Aaron’s. (No spoilers. See the movie.) And we end up asking ourselves exactly how manipulative this guy is. Did he choose this revelatory (for its time, for the news, for men), “feminine” subject, not because of his sensitivity, but because he knows precisely how well it would go over with female viewers? Adding yet another layer of nuance: Actress Marlee Matlin, who William Hurt was dating during the filming of Broadcast News, wrote in her 2010 memoir that Hurt raped, punched, and emotionally abused her. At the time, the media reacted by gushing: “Marlee Matlin Reveals a Darker Side!” News stories referred to the couple’s “passionate,” “tumultuous,” and “volatile” relationship. Another ex also accused Hurt of abuse, noting that he “smashed her across the face” five days after the birth of their baby. William Hurt still gets work. So does Mel Gibson, who was also accused of punching his girlfriend while she was holding his baby. (He was also caught on tape threatening to kill her.) Woody Allen seems pretty busy, too. But sure, write another story about how dangerous the #metoo movement is.
Which is precisely what makes Broadcast News so gripping after 30 years. It’s distressing, hilarious, smart, relevant. And I suspect it will still speak to viewers 30 years from now.
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