Film discussion

Throwback 30: Broadcast News

I was the poster child for Broadcast News. Or more appropriately, its lead Jane Craig was the poster child for me.

For over 10 years, the movie poster adorned my bedroom wall. And as embodied by Holly Hunter, Jane Craig radiated as the diminutive spark plug who smartly oversaw a hustling, bustling television news room but wasn’t above crying by herself in quiet moments. It offered me much insight into my then-blossoming journalism career.

Network had served as the definitive movie about the television industry in the ’70s. Its stark, pungent tone perfectly embodied the disenfranchised era and the film scored four Academy Awards from its 10 nominations. Then Broadcast News came along late in the ’80s and did something very similar in a completely different vein, racking up seven Oscar nominations in the process.

At its core, the James L. Brooks film is a romantic comedy. Jane Craig quickly is torn between Tom Grunick, played against character by William Hurt. His handsome dimbulb has swiftly ascended through the ranks of the news game at the expense of seasoned reporters such as Albert Brooks’ Aaron Altman, a man perfect at his job but without any of Tom’s natural allure.

Jane’s relationships with both men play out over the television news backdrop. Grunick initially sees Craig when she’s giving a speech about how the major networks keep pushing flash over substance. The members of the audience — who are all in the same business — hoot with delight upon watching a clip she brought of an intricate domino chain reaction broadcast on the news. It was meant as an example of what not to do, but the crowd doesn’t take it that way. Jane says it may be fun, but it’s definitely not news. She looks like she’s fighting a losing battle, and it’s about to get 10 times worse for her.

Craig spends the night talking shop with Grunick until he gets up the nerve to tell her the kicker — her network has hired him as on-air talent. Having never covered anything but sports, Tom doesn’t know the first thing about how to be a television journalist. Jane’s going to have to deal with that while fighting her clear attraction to him.

And truth be told, Aaron doesn’t have much of a chance with Jane. They’re best friends, they tell each other everything, but if something romantic was going to happen between them, it probably would have gone down long before Tom arrived on the scene. So Altman’s primary purpose in the triangle is showing his good friend she’s lowering her standards in a manner she won’t be able to live with or without.

As an audience, we do get behind Altman, though, especially after he suffers a meltdown of hysterical proportions while filling in as news anchor. Albert Brooks excels at this kind of display and his director is so confident about that ability that he gives the scene’s best line to an extra — “This is more than Nixon ever sweated.”

Things don’t run as smoothly for Tom either. When he gets his big chance to anchor a breaking-news story, Grunick depends on everyone being on the top of their respective games to do the job — including Aaron, who was left in the dust by his bosses. That does provide a drunken Altman the opportunity to offer up such digs as “A lot of alliteration from anxious anchors placed in powerful poses.”

Why are two such great catches battling for the love of their manic producer? Hunter makes us understand. She’s so alive and so present, able to tell her boss that it’s “awful” to think she’s the smartest one in the room, yet not be able to make heads or tails of her love life. James L. Brooks wrote the role for Debra Winger, who starred in Terms of Endearment for him a few years earlier. It’s absolutely impossible to imagine Winger or anyone else in the role after Hunter dove into it with such fearless abandon.

The three sides of the triangle get much support from everyone else on the canvas, there’s not a weak link among them. Robert Prosky comes off as an elder Aaron, as their boss Ernie Merriman, time’s passing him by too. Joan Cusack plays Blair Litton, a junior producer only slightly less manic and talented than Jane. And the piece de resistance, Jack Nicholson, simply perfect as the top newsman in the field, Bill Rorish, who can make or break careers with the lilt of an eyebrow.

Thirty years ago, I considered Broadcast News a perfect movie, save the tacked-on final 10 minutes showing where the three sides of the triangle end up a few years down the road. Now in retrospect, it fits perfectly into place. The denouement of Jane and Tom’s romance felt like the end of their story at the time, but with the passing of time, it feels even more appropriate now to see how they made use of the lessons they and Aaron learned during their time together.

Rediscovering it kind of makes me wish I still had the poster up on my wall.

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