Top Fifty Films of the 80s — Number Six

#6 — Broadcast News (James L. Brooks, 1987)
By the time I was in a college film class in the early nineties, the textbook was already citing the James L. Brooks screenplay for Broadcast News as a ideal example of how writing for film should work. Specifically, the author spent several pages marveling over the efficiency of Brooks’s dialogue in developing character. That’s for good reason: scene after scene, the conversations that happen between characters are natural, funny and engaging, but always have a deeper purpose. Brooks doesn’t build foreshadowing puzzles into the dialogue nor rigidly constructed plot point delivery. Instead, the people onscreen simply reveal themselves, bit by bit, as they articulate their thoughts and feelings. They aren’t charged with carrying the plot forward; the plot is formed by their loves, passions, fears, dedication, compromises, and, eventually, little progression towards healing. While the film is beautifully made, its most artful aspect is the way it sweeps along as if there were no one behind the camera tugging at strings. Entertaining and wise as it is, the film has the feel of something that’s just happening within the frame, and that’s without leaning on vérité technique. It’s polished as can be and yet splendidly real.

The film is set in a network newsroom as a small phalanx of challenges are besetting the sort of integrity-driven journalism that used to be the pride of national broadcasters. The desire to report hard news is imperiled by a creeping infiltration of fluffy nonsense into the nightly newscast, a trend producer Jane Craig illustrates to an audience of disinterested students by noting that all of the networks bypassed major international stories in favor of airing footage of elaborate arrays of dominoes falling at a silly competition. Jane is played by Holly Hunter in a crafty, vibrant, detailed performance that immediately elevated her from minor Hollywood curiosity to a major actress, the sort whose work demanded attention. For her, the struggle between serious reporting and comforting frivolity is embodied by the two men pursuing her romantically. Aaron Altman, played to perfection by Albert Brooks, is the anxious reporter who has a bad habit of repelling people with his daunting knowledge, and Tom Grunick, played by William Hurt in his last real opportunity to play a lusted-after hunk of beef, is the other side, a genial, lunkish burgeoning anchor who is style’s triumph over substance all by himself.

Brooks plays out the different dynamics between his primary three characters with expert care, while never losing sight of the importance of remaining sharply true to the surroundings they move through. The various side characters have their own distinct personalities and shades of personal stories. That’s clearly true of relatively major figures such as Joan Cusack’s harried production assistant and Peter Hackes’ steady News Division President (the latter probably aided in developing verisimilitude by his own Emmy-winning career in broadcast journalism), but I’m very partial to the editor played by Christian Clemenson. He only has a couple scenes, but Brooks works with the actor who provides a genuine sense of who the character is and, importantly, what his work life is like. His beaming gratitude when Tom praises his work is one of the film’s sweetest, most telling moments.

By the end of the Broadcast News, it truly seems as if the land these characters have planted their feet on is rapidly eroding away, a direct reflection of the things Brooks witnessed while researching the film at CBS News. Monetary concerns have gutted the news staff–a fate that may have been different if the network had figured out how to program Wednesday nights, according to the legendary anchorman played in a smart cameo by Jack Nicholson–and each of the three principals has been somehow wounded by their uncertain dances with one another. The affection Brooks has for his characters in fully evident in the great care he takes in bringing them to the screen. That affection doesn’t prevent him from exposing them to the melancholy truths of life. He doesn’t punish them, but nor does he push them towards a tidy ending that could feel fake. He stays true to them, right up to the lovely, noncommittal end.