Monday, January 24, 2011

All the news that's fit to primp: Broadcast News

Tom (William Hurt) met Jane (Holly Hunter) when Jane gave a lecture at an industry conference about the moronization of the TV news. Nearly the whole of Jane’s audience of cynical, careerist colleagues just rolled their eyes, but for Tom, Jane’s words fell upon him with the force of revelation. Because Tom’s a symptom of precisely the problem Jane’s addressing. Tall, handsome and Aryan, sporting a pleasing baritone, displaying no special talent whatsoever for journalistic insight, Tom was a born anchorman. Soon he becomes Jane’s anchorman, and Jane his producer, whispering instructions in his ear at just the right on-air moments, which causes all sorts of problems not just for Jane’s sense of professional integrity—this is a woman who forces herself into sobs on a daily basis just to assure herself that she hasn’t lost her ability to feel—but for her personal life, since she discovers that she fancies Tom, and once her old buddy, the devoted reporter but less than telegenic Aaron (Albert Brooks), discovers that Jane fancies Tom, Aaron realizes that he’s always fancied Jane, and Aaron really needs to hate Tom, even though Tom makes it hard by being a basically nice guy. Things get complicated, and it’s to the credit of writer/director James L. Brooks that
Broadcast News (1987), never compromises those complications by imposing facile resolutions.

Broadcast News for the first time, it initially struck me as jarring to imagine William Hurt and Jack Nicholson inhabiting the same movie—there are simply certain stars, or certain star egos, that seem to burn too boldly to share a constellation. Brooks himself tacitly acknowledges something momentous about a Hurt/Nicholson collision by taking their few seconds of shared screen time and filling it with an enormous close-up of their shaking hands. As it turns out Nicholson’s role is almost small enough to be considered a cameo, the bulk of his performance playing out on TV monitors watched by the other characters, a little bit like Brian O’Blivion in Videodrome (83), but with better grooming and less zeal.

What’s more deeply unsettling is the experience of witnessing Criterion’s spinning “C” introductory logo being followed by the whimsical, overly illustrative strains of Bill Conti’s musical score. Whether issuing works from the giants of foreign art cinema, studio era classics or psychotronic cult obscurities, Criterion has nearly always been synonymous with durability and keen, eclectic taste, so it takes some time to reconcile their brand with music from the dude who conducts the Oscars. But, okay, so I’m sensitive to sappy music. Fact is Broadcast News does represent the zenith of a particular kind of Hollywood film, one Brooks has made a career of, sometimes winningly, sometimes disastrously (How Do You Know), sometimes problematically while under the impression that this is As Good As It Gets. His are brainy, ambitious comedies with an interest in group dynamics, social milieux and romantic frustration, that delve into their characters’ eccentricities rather than simply use those eccentricities for superficial colour. Broadcast News has also accumulated tremendous historical value by having examined how televised news was generated, consumed, and essentially downgraded at a key moment in its development, and benefits enormously from Michael Ballhaus’ superb camerawork every time we’re offering a peek behind the scenes. It’s also, of course, fairly entertaining, thanks for especially to Hunter, who can somehow be at once zany and emotionally grounded, and Albert Brooks, rather moving and very much in his element, playing a character whose relationship to his female colleague is remarkably similar to that of Brooks’ character in Taxi Driver (76). Yet, as with some other James Brooks films, I couldn’t shake the feeling while watching Broadcast News that its clever gags were actually intended to be much funnier than they are. It might be a matter of rhythm: I recall at least two scenes that end with Albert Brooks saying or doing something funny, but instead of cutting on the joke, the scene ends with Hunter’s laughing reaction. I’d have preferred it if Brooks let me laugh instead.


theoncominghope said...

Great review.

I just saw it for the first time, and wrote at length about it and it's relation to Network and The Mary Tyler Moore Show:

JB said...

Thanks for reading. My memories of Mary Tyler Moore are very hazy, but warm, so I look forward to your piece.