Broadcast News (1987)    2 Stars

“It’s the story of their lives.”

Broadcast News (1987)

Director: James L. Brooks

Cast: William Hurt, Albert Brooks, Holly Hunter

Synopsis: Take two rival TV reporters: one handsome, one talented, both male. Add one producer, female. Mix well and watch the sparks fly.

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Before James L. Brooks’ movie career was largely sidelined by The Simpsons, he was on his way to earning a solid reputation as a writer and director of intelligent, witty and insightful comedy dramas. Terms of Endearment (1983) won five Academy Awards – three for Brooks alone for Director, Writer and Picture – and was nominated for a further six. Broadcast News received seven nominations but won nothing.

The film revolves around three people, all employees of a US news channel. Jane (Holly Hunter) is one of the channel’s producers; Aaron (Albert Brooks) is an incisive reporter, a writer of great copy who longs to be the channel’s anchorman. That role is assumed by new boy Tom (William Hurt), a handsome and earnest, but essentially dull, character, who is aware of his shortcomings, and feels vaguely guilty about capitalising on his smooth delivery of news reports he admits to sometimes not understanding. Both men are attracted to Jane; she and Aaron are close friends, endlessly phoning each other, sharing jokes and inner thoughts. He is head over heels in love with her, but Jane prefers to remain just friends. Initially repelled by Tom’s self-confessed lack of knowledge, Jane is unable to deny her physical attraction to him.

While Broadcast News provides a compelling insight into the pressurised environment of a busy news channel, it also serves as a precautionary tale about the direction in which televised news was travelling in the mid-1980s. Worryingly, it’s a journey that is still ongoing as news reportage continues to be dumbed down to levels that TV executives think we, the great unwashed with our limited brains, will be capable of understanding. Aaron and Tom represent opposite ends of the spectrum: the intrepid investigate journalist who writes detailed and perceptive copy about subjects that matter versus the slick newsman more concerned with manipulating his audience in order to elicit the requisite reaction. In one of the film’s key scenes, Aaron warns Jane that ’he (Tom) will just bit by little bit lower standards where they are important. Just coax along flash over substance…’ His words seem sadly prescient today.

All this concern for the future of TV news journalism – and its wider implications – is disguised beneath the make-up of a comedy that is sometimes sharp-witted, sometimes frothy. It’s a mix that works better than it should, bolstered by some terrific performances. Albert Brooks in particular is outstanding as the hapless Aaron, a decent man who can only stand by and watch as life looks to rob him of his ideals. Holly Hunter, standing in for a pregnant Debra Winger, is near-faultless as Jane, displaying a pleasing vulnerability beneath the bustling efficiency of her character (each pre-planned crying session, at first alarming, becomes increasingly hilarious). Unusually, it’s William Hurt – normally one of the stronger elements of any movie in which he appears – who lags slightly. While he’s not exactly a weak link, his tendency towards affected mannerisms is allowed free rein here, meaning that his performance comes across as a little too cute at times.

(Reviewed 26th July 2012)