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Truly Great Movies: Broadcast News (1987)

July 2, 2011

I don’t know why it has taken me so long to write about Broadcast News.  I think it might have to do with the fact that it is so close to my heart that I actually find it difficult to do it justice in the explanation of why it is SUCH a truly great movie.  It’s a rare beast:  a romantic comedy with a twist of an ending that is a perfect fit.  It may not be traditional, but it is faithful  to the characters it has let us learn to love throughout a fantastic film.

Before Broadcast News, director James L. Brooks’s biggest hit was the weepy Oscar-bait laden Terms of Endearment.  Brooks proved with that movie that he can pull amazing performances out of his female leads.  By 1987, he was ready to give achance to a relatively unknown actress named Holly Hunter.  This time, he would be making a comedy set in the fast-paced and brutal world of television journalism.  Compared to the cut-throat environment of national news, cancer might seem like cake.

Holly Hunter’s Jane Craig doesn’t have the classic earmarks of a leading romantic comedy heroine.  She’s short, has an almost overpowering Southern accent, has a a head of frizzy brown hair, and she can be a bit of a bully.  But, she’s also kind-hearted, is almost unforgiveably romantic, and is a genius of a producer.  She has the “eye” for news and for writing copy that make her one in a million.  Her bosses at the Washington Bureau for her network know this quite well.   In a time of looming cutbacks, she is one of the few not in danger of seeing all she worked for slip away.

Jane and Aaron trade barbs

Jane’s best friend and co-worker is Aaron (Albert Brooks), a self-deprecating reporter who specializes in location work (usually in the international arena).  He wants to be anchor someday, and he has the technical skills to make it happen.  Aaron is wry, sarcastic and hilarious, but he’s too much of an original.  In the back of his brain he knows that a good national news anchor has to be a bit of a stone-faced everyman.  Aaron is not that guy.

Tom Grunick (William Hurt) IS that guy.  Tall, blond, and with chiseled features worthy of  ancient sculptures, he is the epitome of handsome.  When he waltzes into the network and into Jane’s life as the new Washington anchor, Aaron’s heart sinks.  You see, his friendship for Jane (and perhaps hers for him) runs a little deeper than he’d care to let her know.  One night in a drunken moment he tells her honestly, “I would give anything if you were two people, so that I could call up the one who’s my friend and tell her about the one that I like SO much! “

Jane, however, is a wise woman.  Tom is not the savior of legend.  He’s charismatic without the prerequisite charisma, and this baffles her and Aaron alike.  Tom swoops in with no training and no writing ability, and he can barely comprehend the news he’s trying to relate to the public.  He’s a smashing success once the green light of the camera turns on, but he can’t put together a grammatically correct sentence.  Jane is stunned.  She’s attracted to this guy, but he should repel her to the core.

Tom in all his "perfection"

Aaron is equally startled.  Tom is not only threatening his one chance at anchoring the news, he’s also trying to steal his best friend (and the love of his life) right out from under him.  This all leads to a confrontation the night of the White House Correspondent’s Dinner.  It’s one of my all-time favorite scenes in any movie.  The friendship between Aaron and Jane is what defines the movie – not the love triangle.  They respect and care about each other as equals.    When Aaron tells Jane that she CAN’T be in love with Tom because he represents everything that she despises in a guy, she fights back.  She even calls Aaron “the Devil”.  Aaron’s response is to tell her honestly,” I think we have the kind of friendship where if I were the devil,YOU’D be the only one I would tell. “  It’s a touching moment and indicative of their unique and sincere friendship.

In a lesser romantic comedy, this might all  have an obvious ending.  But, in James L. Brooks’s screenplay, it leads to a bittersweet and realistic climax.  Jane and Aaron are too alike.  They love each other, but are scared (rightly so) of jeopardizing their rare friendship.  Jane and Tom are too different.  Does Tom truly love her?  Maybe.  But is his definition of love equal to Jane’s?  Maybe not. There are questions about journalistic ethics involved, as well.  Can Jane sacrifice what she loves about her profession to find love? Should she have to consider this at all?

creating news AND drama

The stars of the film are Holly Hunter and Albert Brooks.  Hunter is a spark of life that affects everyone she meets.   Brooks’s Aaron has a tough job playing second fiddle to the main romantic leads, but he steals every moment he can with skill.    Above all, the movie never lets you forget that these people are defined by their careers.  Nothing is more important than meeting the deadline and coming up with that perfect coda to a story.  Not even romance gets in the way of ratings.   

Broadcast News is a bright enigma of a romantic comedy.  It doesn’t fit easily into a standard genre, and that’s what makes it so wonderful.   Besides, any movie that opens with an Arnold Schwarzenegger joke that is STILL timely today is worth a first or repeat viewing.

See my favorite scene below…(SPOILER ALERT if you haven’t seen the film)…

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