James L. Brooks’ witty Broadcast News is not a film about the news; at least not in the journalistic sense. It takes place amongst newscasters, news writers, and news producers, but it is not about uncovering the truth or exposing the lie. It is a film about how we process the news; how accepting smaller human-interest stories, reported by stylized celebrity anchors, makes it easier to neglect the world at large.
Produced in 1987, when our own country was being led by erstwhile leading man Ronald Reagan, Brooks’ film doubles the irony by casting Jack Nicholson as an outgoing senior anchor. His replacement will be Tom Grunick (William Hurt), who we see at the beginning of the film as a burgeoning manipulator, coaxing the cost of a tutor out of his work-a-day father.
We next see a high-schooler post-beating, cackling that he’ll see the world while his assailants are stuck making minimum wage; it doesn’t seem to bother them. This would be Aaron, an on-the-scene international reporter and news writer who is played with requisite self-loathing by Albert Brooks. Jane Craig (Holly Hunter) has been the object of Aaron’s desire for a near-decade and, oddly, eventually becomes something like an agent of redemption for Tom. She also happens to be a killer producer, able to direct an anchor with heated precision but not above screaming at a lazy affiliate.
Jane’s boss remarks, ‘I had no idea she was this good.’ He is reacting to one of her tirades but he might as well be talking about Hunter. Fresh off her breakthrough performance in the Coen brothers’ oddball comedy Raising Arizona, the Georgia-born actress uses her buoyant southern twang in Broadcast but here it is authoritative and assured. That is, when she’s not breaking into tears for no apparent reason. For Jane, TV is the world view but it has become vaudeville. During an academic lecture on news content, she shows a clip and screams about how a cute human interest story was reported above an important treaty signing. The audience doesn’t hear her because they are too busy watching the flashing lights in the clip.
It would be easy to make each character an opinion or, at worst, a singular concept, but James L. Brooks is a gifted writer even more so than he is a director. The conflicted heart that beats beneath scenes of romance, business, and massive humor is a cerebral tug-of-war between the bitter, sophisticated intelligence of Aaron and the manicured, aloof showmanship of Tom. This would seemingly set up Hurt as an antagonist or, at the very least, an empty shirt, but not the way the brilliant Hurt plays him and certainly not the way Brooks sketches him. The ultimate shattering reveal for Jane is when she realizes Tom faked his reaction to a story, in the middle of massive layoffs no less. For Tom, looking smart is the next best thing to being smart; Jane and Aaron think being smart is enough.
There are a lot of ideas in Brooks’ film, not the least of which is the fragility of the truth and the fickleness of historical authorship. Will the audience get more out of seeing a woman’s harrowing tale of rape than India’s invasion of Pakistan? Brooks’ point is very clearly that, like literature, film, music, and the classic arts, the most rewarding news is often the toughest to hear and even tougher to fully comprehend. Unavoidably, he concedes that we are already well into an era of news as entertainment and that those who stand opposed will either be tossed aside or will take their rightful place at a university lecture hall or at a newspaper. The film is titled Broadcast News to point out that there is a difference between what is broadcast… and what is the news.