Reviews of Classic Movies: ‘Broadcast News’ is a surprisingly clairvoyant office dramedy

Holly Hunter stars as Jane Craig in  Broadcast News , directed by James L. Brooks.

Holly Hunter stars as Jane Craig in Broadcast News, directed by James L. Brooks.

It’s a rare movie that gets the distinction of “aging well”. Too often, a movie made with a particular fervor about some kind of social issue or piece of technology risks seeming jokey or out-of-touch when you watch it again many years later. So when you come across an older film that feels just as relevant today as it did when it came out, you get a special thrill; the effect can even intensify if the film actually predicted something that would happen long after it was released. It’s enough to make you briefly forget about the spiralling doom of Hollywood blockbusters to eventually all occupy a single cinematic universe.

To find one of these perennially valuable, prescient movies, you need only look to Broadcast News, released thirty years ago this December and directed by James L. Brooks, who went on to be the legendary executive producer of The Simpsons. The film follows a trio of employees at the Washington, D.C. station of a major news network, as they navigate the treacherous waters of both the journalism industry and office romance. Brooks’ screenplay (which is thoroughly informed by his stint as a copywriter at CBS News in the 60s), prods at worrying trends in news production that we’re all too familiar with today. Among his targets are TV hosts hired only for their screen presence and newsrooms so understaffed and overworked that none of their reporters can have a life outside the office.

Jane Craig (Holly Hunter) is a tenacious news producer at the centre of Broadcast News; she’s effective and respected by her colleagues, and she worries that the trend of hiring attractive, airhead presenters is damaging the credibility of TV journalism. While Jane’s career is in good shape, her home life is not: she can’t seem to make a connection with any of the men she encounters, except for her best friend and colleague Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks) and the new hire, Tom Grunick (William Hurt).

Albert Brooks as reporter Aaron Altman.

Albert Brooks as reporter Aaron Altman.

On paper, both Aaron and Tom might seem like good matches for Jane. Like Jane, Aaron is committed to delivering high-quality, responsible journalism, and he has a playful, bantering rapport with her. Meanwhile, Tom is a handsome TV host, who openly admits his insecurities about his intelligence and his difficulty understanding the issues he covers on the air. But for Jane, Aaron is just a good friend, and Tom represents everything she hates about her profession (as attracted as she is to his charm and good looks).

The more classically romantic viewers in the audience will likely spend much of Broadcast News screaming at Jane to choose Aaron over Tom. But Brooks’ script takes pains to depict Tom in a sympathetic light. His willingness to admit his intellectual weaknesses is endearing - the early scene between Jane and Tom in a hotel room is a striking example of actors tasked with playing a scene multiple ways at once. Tom even steps forward to coach Aaron in on-camera performance for Aaron’s first big hosting assignment. However, Tom isn’t a saint; he can be manipulative and opportunistic, and Jane spends much of the story figuring out what she really thinks of him.

Though the performances and relationship-focused dialogue are the initial hook in Broadcast News, the film follows through with many biting industry critiques. These include a sequence where Aaron hand-holds Tom through a complex story over the phone but gets no credit and a scene where Jane watches an entire audience flee a conference lecture she’s giving on the decay of TV news. Most poignant of all, we see a newsroom downsizing sequence where dozens lose their jobs but where Tom actually gets promoted.

Jane and Aaron work at the Washington station of a major network with Tom Grunick (William Hurt, centre).

Jane and Aaron work at the Washington station of a major network with Tom Grunick (William Hurt, centre).

Oddly, the one thing we don’t see the characters do much of in the film is actual reporting (calling sources, researching, conducting interviews), which reinforces the idea that the movie isn’t really about journalism - it’s about everything in the background that helps or hinders it. The one time Aaron and Jane are seen in the field (as they follow a group of Contra rebels in Nicaragua) is more of a setting for Aaron trying (in vain) to win Jane’s affection. As Brooks argued in an interview with The Atlantic, the scene was never about the Contra story or showing his characters at work - it was how people want and need to connect, and sometimes they don’t know how to do it.

While Brooks probably couldn’t predict the other major development in journalism - the domination of politically-affiliated pundits - his film still anticipated many aspects of the modern newsroom (or the workplace in general), especially how a dedicated employee might sacrifice everything - happiness, health, sanity - for the job. The irony is that he or she may not be doing it to advance his or her career; it might just be easier to do to than think about love.

Broadcast News gets four stars out of four.


Stray thoughts

  • Jack Nicholson’s cameo performance was a nice surprise - would it have been even better if we only saw him on the TVs around the station, and not in that downsizing scene?
  • After all the great work Hunter does in this film, it makes me somehow hate Batman v Superman more for misusing her.
  • I’ll always love the first season of HBO’s The Newsroom, but it owes such a debt to this movie it’s almost not funny.