Movie Monday Vol. 10: Broadcast News

Denise M. Reagan has been a lot of things for SND, but this week, she adds Movie Monday Guest Critic to her resume and brings us a delightfully insightful look at “Broadcast News,” a film about TV journalism with themes that carry over to print, as well.

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“Broadcast News”
As reviewed by Denise M. Reagan, AME/Visuals, The Florida Times-Union

Released: 1987. Length: 2:13.

Director: James L. Brooks. Stars: William Hurt, Albert Brooks, Holly Hunter, Jack Nicholson, Joan Cusack.

Find it here: At Amazon.com, of course, in a standard DVD release. Sadly, though December 2007 brings us the 20th anniversary of the film, there are no known plans to do this one up right with an anniversary release chock full of extras.

Awards Circuit: Seven Oscar nods, including Best Picture, Best Actor (Hurt), Best Actress (Hunter) and Best Supporting Actor (Brooks). Also picked up five Golden Globe nominations.

What Leonard Maltin says: “Appealing and intelligent comedy … Brooks is a special standout.” (***) (From Leonard Maltin’s 2007 Movie Guide)

Plot synopsis: Three television journalists form an emotional and professional love triangle: Jane Craig (Holly Hunter), a driven producer who yearns for personal connection but won’t lower her standards; Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks), a gifted reporter who aims for anchor status and a romantic relationship with his best friend and collaborator, Jane; and Tom Grunick (William Hurt), an attractive and likable television personality with intellectual limitations who is attracted to but intimidated by Jane. This is a story of the conflicts between ambition and attraction set against a hilarious satire/tribute to TV journalism and the egos behind it.

Reality Check: It’s hard not to see similarities in 1987’s “Broadcast News” to the mass layoffs at CBS News in 1984. In fact, longtime CBS Evening News producer Susan Zirinsky was a technical advisor on the film. The subject matter feels as fresh as ever today amidst a backdrop of continual downsizing in the journalism industry. The scenes of people packing up their desks and saying goodbye are particularly poignant.

Read more…

Geek Factor: (Spoiler alert!) It’s fitting that the penultimate conflict of the film revolves around journalistic ethics. Anyone who watches “Broadcast News” will get it, but the revelation has special meaning for the journalists in the audience.

Jane learns that Tom faked his tearful on-camera response during an interview with a date rape victim by summoning up tears for the shot after the interview was over. Jane confronts Tom right before they are scheduled to go on a romantic getaway together.

Jane: I saw the taped outtakes of the interview with the girl. I know you “acted” your reaction after the interview.
Tom: I felt funny about it afterwards. It’s verboten, huh? I thought since I did it for real the first time — but I get you. That’s not the reason you’re not coming?
Jane: Of course it’s the reason. It’s terrible what you did.
Tom: We disagree on how God-awful it was. Why don’t you come with me, and we can disagree and get a tan at the same time?
Jane: Jesus, if you’re glib about this I’m going to lose it. I was up all night and …
Tom: Jane, Jane, Jane, Jane, Jane …
Jane: It made me ill. You could get fired for things like that.
Tom: I got promoted for things like that.
Jane: Working up tears for a new piece cutaway … You totally crossed the line between …
Tom: It’s hard not to cross it; they keep moving the little sucker, don’t they?
Jane: It just proves that the differences we have are …
Tom: This is a one-way argument. We’ve got six days; if you go and we fight and we hate it — we’ll come home. If you don’t go? Well, that’s a much bigger deal. I go to London right after that. So, it’d be very big deal if you stay here. The plane’s boarding. You’re good at deadline. Here’s your ticket.
Jane: It’s amazing. You commit this incredible breach of ethics, and you act as if I’m nitpicking.

Crucial scene not to be missed: This is the quintessential scene that defines Jane’s personality. A Libyan plane has shot up a U.S. base in Egypt. The network will go on the air with a special report. (How quaint is that in light of our 24-hour news network existence?) Head honcho Paul picks Tom to anchor the special report, and Jane is incensed.

Jane: Tom isn’t ready for the job you’re about to hand him. Not near ready. Not by the longest shot. Aaron’s spent six weeks in Tripoli, he’s interviewed Gaddafi — he reported on the Eight-one story. I think he’s essential to do the job we’re capable of, and I think it’s my responsibility to tell you that.
Paul: OK, that’s your opinion. I don’t agree.
Jane: It’s not opinion.
Paul: You’re just absolutely right, and I’m absolutely wrong?
(Jane nods.)
Paul: It must be nice to always believe you know better. To think you’re always the smartest person in the room.
Jane: No, it’s awful.

Denise’s Review: Films that feature the journalism world rarely get it right. Of course the crucial details are often glossed over or downright wrong; we’re used to that from Hollywood. But the sad thing is that they don’t seem to understand the most crucial element of the news world — the personalities behind it.

“Broadcast News” is one of the few that is dead on. What makes it even more surprising is that it’s a film about television journalism, but it really focuses on the “journalism” and the manic people who practice it.

We learn what drives these people by focusing on their craft. Here are the main traits the film reveals and some of the most illustrative scenes.

Obsession
After being passed over to anchor the special report on Libya, Aaron goes home and tries to distract himself by listening to a little French music (which he can sing along with in perfect French).

Back at the newsroom, everyone is rushing to go on the air. Jane obsesses over every detail — the script, the graphics, the interviews, everything.

Meanwhile, Tom picks out a new shirt and tie.

Moments before they go on the air, Jane tests Tom’s earpiece. Tom doesn’t answer. Jane begins to freak out. Tom laughs and says, “I can hear you. I was just teasing.”

Aaron can’t resist turning on the television. He watches a few seconds of the special report and calls Jane. He starts feeding her sources and information. Within moments, Tom is spouting Aaron’s expert nuggets that Jane feeds Tom through his earpiece.

In amazement, Aaron remarks to himself, “I say it here — it comes out there.”

Perfectionism
While editing Aaron’s story about a war veteran, Jane remembers a Norman Rockwell painting called “Homecoming” that she thinks would make a poignant ending. She is up against deadline but sends someone to her office to shoot video of the image from a book. As time for the segment to air quickly approaches, Jane calmly pieces together the video with a new voiceover by Aaron.

She proudly completes the tape in time for an assistant (comedically performed by Joan Cusack) to make a panicked sprint to the control room right before it airs. (Reality check: One hopes they got permission to broadcast this copyrighted material on the evening news.)

Struggle with the changing face of news
Jane and Aaron represent the core values of journalism. Tom represents the encroaching evil of style over substance in TV news. The film is bursting with these references, and they’re as spot-on today as they were in 1987. Here’s a selection of some of Aaron’s best digs:

“Let’s never forget, we’re the real story, not them.”
“Sorry… sex, tears… this must be the news.”
“You’ve got to turn on your television right now. Arnold Schwarzenegger is on The Today Show, Good Morning America and the morning news — I think he’s live on two of them.”

Aaron sums it up best when he’s faced with the reality of Jane — his best friend, trusted collaborator and secret love — starting a romantic relationship with Tom.

Aaron: I know you care about him. I’ve never seen you like this about anyone, so please don’t take it wrong when I tell you that I believe that Tom, while a very nice guy, is the Devil.
Jane: This isn’t friendship.
Aaron: What do you think the Devil is going to look like if he’s around? Nobody is going to be taken in if he has a long, red, pointy tail. No. I’m semi-serious here. He will look attractive and he will be nice and helpful and he will get a job where he influences a great God-fearing nation and he will never do an evil thing … he will just bit by little bit lower standards where they are important. Just coax along flash over substance … Just a tiny bit. And he will talk about all of us really being salesmen. And he’ll get all the great women.

No personal lives
The commitment to craft usually takes its toll on social interaction. Most journalists know few people outside the newsroom. And meaningful dating is usually impossible.

Our friends in “Broadcast News” are no different. We often see them socializing together because they have no one else. They are even a bit awkward in environments outside the newsroom. These experts in communication have trouble expressing their feelings. Jane even has to schedule time to cry by practicing a daily ritual where she unplugs the phone and forces out the tears.

As Aaron says, “Wouldn’t this be a great world if insecurity and desperation made us more attractive? If needy were a turn on?”

Cusack’s character sums it up perfectly when she tells Jane, “Except for socially, you’re my role model.”

Newsroom romances
Every newsroom has them, and the personal side usually gets mixed up in the professional side. Does this sound familiar?

Tom likes Jane. Jane is too busy for Tom. Aaron loves Jane. Jane likes being Aaron’s friend. Tom sleeps with Jennifer. Jane is jealous. Jane sends Jennifer far away to cover a story. Jane moves on Tom. Tom commits breach of ethics. Aaron figures it out. Aaron tells Jane he loves her and about Tom’s ethical breach. Jane chooses ethics over Tom. Jane, Aaron and Tom all go to new jobs. Jane and Aaron are awkward but stay in touch. Jane and Tom end up working together again.

Final note
As someone who has worked in the visual realm of journalism, I have always felt a little like Tom — not quite up to snuff and highly suspect to my “real” journalism colleagues.

When Aaron gets a shot to anchor the weekend news, he gets some coaching from Tom who focuses not on the content of the anchor’s job but the presentation. Here’s the advice he gives Aaron.

“And remember — you’re not just reading the news or narrating. Everybody has to sell a little. You’re selling them this idea of you. You know, what you’re sort of saying is, ‘trust me. I’m, uh, credible.’ So whenever you catch yourself just reading … stop and start selling a little.”

By the end of the coaching session, Aaron is sold on the tips that Tom has given him. However, his anchor opportunity is a disaster.

Is there a metaphor here? I hope not.

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2 responses to “Movie Monday Vol. 10: Broadcast News

  1. Mark A. Dodge Medlin

    Great review, Denise.

    One of my favorite conversations in this excellent movie involves none of the three main characters. It’s the day of the layoffs, and Paul is giving the ax to a 60-something guy in a bow tie.

    Trying to be brave, Mr. Bow Tie says something philosophical, and Paul comes back with an insincere, “What a wonderful line.” Then the unctuous exec says, “Now, if there’s anything I can do for you …”

    And Mr. Bow Tie responds, “Well, I certainly hope you’ll die soon.” Beautiful.

    Also, there’s Aaron’s line to Jane that neatly sums up how in synch they are: “OK, I’ll meet you at the place near the thing where we went that time.” And she knows just the spot he’s talking about.

  2. Linda Shapley

    Great choice! And so obvious that I was surprised it hadn’t been reviewed yet!

    You guys have mentioned so many of the stellar lines in the piece, but one of my faves was when Jane, as exec producer of the breaking news report, supremely chews out a reporter who missed the standup interview because of parking. Paul says to another person, “I had NO IDEA she was this good.”

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