Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Oscar Film Journal: Broadcast News (1987)

Welcome back to the Oscar Film Journal, here at!

We're headed back to 1987 for a look at James L. Brooks' third film, Broadcast News, starring Holly Hunter, William Hurt and Albert Brooks, about a trio of characters who work in the, well, broadcast news business but get snared in both a love triangle and a professional one.  

Holly Hunter is Jane Craig, a star producer so in-demand she has no time for a social life, who sees the TV news industry on the verge of crisis as it becomes more about fluff and sensationalism.  Albert Brooks is her best friend and colleague Aaron Altman, an extremely talented journalist who lacks social skills and isn't particularly photogenic, and thus isn't seen as anchor material.  William Hurt is Tom Grunick, a former sportscaster given an anchor position despite not being particularly qualified, mostly on the basis of the camera loving him and his innate ability to "sell" a story.  Tom is hired by the Washington DC news affiliate where Jane and Aaron work - Jane is initially repelled by him because of his (admitted) lack of qualifications but also strangely attracted to him for his looks and willingness to learn, while Aaron resents him immediately as he himself becomes persona non grata, both at the station and as a romantic suitor for Jane.
The film pretty adeptly juggles the two triangle themes without programming the audience to choose between the Brooks and Hurt characters.  Both are written as complex, three-dimensional people with pros and cons.  Tom is the "Edison," Aaron is the "Tesla," but Tom isn't predatory in his ambition, fully aware of how much better a reporter Aaron is and that all he needs is to make himself more personable for the camera (At one point Aaron gets an anchor audition on a Saturday night and Tom coaches him, leading to the film's funniest scene).  Aaron knows he's a talented journalist with a gift for writing compelling copy, but also that he lacks the self-confidence and showmanship the major networks want.  He also knows he's in love with Jane but is too crippled with doubt to act on it, until she tells him of her feelings for Tom.  Jane is the center of the film, played with Holly Hunter's usual surefootedness and fireplug strength.  She's so quick on her feet she's able to edit together a video package just seconds before it needs to air, and talks Tom through his first anchor gig in real-time (with over-the-phone help from Aaron).  Watching the three characters maneuver through the fast-paced, often ruthless world of television news was for me the most interesting aspect of the film; the love story not as much.  But maybe that's sorta the point - these characters are so consumed with their careers they neither have the time nor the passion to deal with trivial things like personal relationships.

James Brooks' fingerprints are all over the screenplay; at times his sitcom style of writing dialogue made me ask myself if this is how real people would talk in these situations.  The romantic banter between Tom and Jane is so awkward it felt cringey at times (again, probably a deliberate choice but made it harder to relate to the characters).  I think I would've been more drawn into the story without the romantic aspects, but I suppose that's what sells tickets, not the hard look at journalism.  Ah, but isn't that precisely the sort of thing Jane was rallying against?

I give the film *** out of ****.

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