Criterion // 1987 // 132 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // January 31st, 2011
It's the story of their lives.
"What do you think the Devil is going to look like if he's around? Nobody is going to be taken in if he has a long, red, pointy tail. No. I'm semi-serious here. He will look attractive and he will be nice and helpful and he will get a job where he influences a great God-fearing nation and he will never do an evil thing...he will just bit by little bit lower standards where they are important. Just coax along flash over substance...Just a tiny bit. And he will talk about all of us really being salesmen. And he'll get all the great women."
Our story centers on three characters working in the world of broadcast journalism. First up is Jane Craig (Holly Hunter, The Piano), a hard-working producer with lofty ambitions and a crusader for honest, ethically produced, substantial news stories. Next up is Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks, Taxi Driver), an intelligent, cynical reporter and Jane's best friend. Finally we have Tom Grunick (William Hurt, A History of Violence), a handsome and charming man without too much intelligence or ability. Naturally, he's being groomed for a job as a network anchor. As these three characters wander through a series of professional and romantic entanglements, they discover important truths about the truly valuable things in life, what it takes to succeed and what it takes to keep feeling good about where your life and career are headed. Welcome to the world of Broadcast News.
James L. Brooks' Broadcast News was made in 1987, and the fact that it is a product of its time perhaps lessens its modern relevance yet simultaneously strengthens its sting. It's arguably the finest film in the director's body of work, a rare film that attempts to tackle quite a lot and succeeds in just about every area: it's funny, tender, sharp-edged, sentimental, bluntly truthful, and never feels uncertain of itself at any point. It's said that Mr. Brooks writes and re-writes his screenplays before he finally feels they're complete, endlessly tinkering in order to get things just right. Broadcast News is the sort of masterful balancing act that seems to justify the effort.
The news has changed so much in the past couple of decades. Primetime network news broadcasts increasingly feel like a quaint relic of the past; a series of charming half-hour magazines which take a backseat to the 24-hour bluster of FOX, CNN, and MSNBC. In Broadcast News, we see Jane taking her peers to task for what she perceives to be severe failings in her profession: good-looking people without much actual knowledge are asked to fill the once-distinguished role of anchor, stories are occasionally being manipulated in order to generate better ratings and hard news stories are too often being passed over in favor of more easily digestible fare. To watch the film today is to realize just how far (and how quickly) the world of broadcast journalism has fallen...if only such relatively mild complaints were the biggest concerns we had with the news we receive today.
There are two unforgettable moments that everyone who has seen the film will remember. One involves Aaron attempting to serve as anchor for the weekend news. He's possibly the most knowledgeable person working for the network, but he is undone by trivialities: he sweats a lot under the bright lights of the cameras. As a result, regardless of the fact that he is vastly more qualified than the vapid Tom, Aaron will never be given the opportunity to reach the role of anchor. The other moment is when Jane discovers that Tom staged his tears during an emotional interview with a rape victim. She is shocked and horrified by this discovery, but Tom dismisses her concerns disdainfully. His rationale: he almost cried anyway during the interview; what's wrong with staging a few tears and inserting them in afterwards? It still represents how he felt.
In these moments, Broadcast News peers into the abyss of today's broadcast journalism. More impressively, it does so with such a beautifully light, witty touch. Though the film presents Jane as a character who is very smart, passionate and angry about these things, the screenplay never loses its cool. Its charming, level-headed look at the agonies of these people makes the messages the film has to offer all the more credible and convincing; Brooks deserves considerable credit for resisting the temptation to pitch the film at the same level as Jane's anger. By allowing us to choose to agree with her rather than explicitly telling us that we ought to, we become more convinced of Broadcast News' arguments.
Though the film is at its best when focusing on the world of news, it's still awfully good when it turns its attention to modern relationships. While some of this stuff may seem a little too familiar today, that's largely because Brooks has inspired so many bad imitators (including Brooks himself, sadly -- the Paul Rudd, Reese Witherspoon and Owen Wilson characters in How Do You Know are diluted variations on Aaron, Jane and Tom, respectively). However, the most intriguing element is the manner in which Brooks quietly draws a parallel between what it takes to get ahead in news and what it takes to get ahead in romance. Tom may not be bright, but his good looks and pleasant personality continue to land him job promotions and relationship opportunities with beautiful women. Even Jane (who values integrity and intelligence as much as any human being on earth) finds herself falling for the amiable Tom rather than the cynical, despairing Aaron (who cares for her oh-so-much and can barely restrain himself from blurting out that he loves her).
The three central performances are all excellent, though I have to admit that I find Hurt's work the most impressive. Here is an actor who effortlessly projects intelligence in many of his roles; he has a professorial quality that sometimes has a way of reminding us (and sometimes a little too much) that he's above the material. Nonetheless, he's remarkably persuasive as the well-intentioned, foolish and corruptible Tom. Brooks turns in another one of his lovable grouches; it's the same Brooks you've seen before but a particularly excellent presentation of that character. Hunter serves as the heart and soul of the film, its passionate crusader and its source of energy. It's one of the strongest performances from an actress who's given us quite a lot of good work. Note should also be made of Jack Nicholson (As Good As It Gets), whose presence in a small but important role looms over the movie effectively.
Though Criterion has done a good job with this 1080p/1.85:1 transfer, Broadcast News isn't exactly a reference disc. The level of grain is very thick at times and the picture occasionally has a somewhat dingy look which makes it seem a bit older than it actually is. Even so, the colors are vibrant at times and depth is very impressive. Detail is rather good, even with a few scenes that seem a little soft. Those who want their films to look natural without any significant tampering will be pleased, but I imagine most other companies would have been tempted to apply at least a little noise reduction. Audio is decent enough, with Bill Conti's sentimental score coming through with strength. The rat-a-tat dialogue is clear throughout and there's no crackling, popping or hissing. Sound design is solid but never terribly immersive.
As usual, Criterion has provided a nice batch of supplements. Things kick off with a pleasant commentary track from Brooks and editor Richard Marks, which covers the film's production history in great detail. Next up is a very engaging 37-minute documentary about Brooks' career, featuring interviews with Brooks collaborators like Julie Kavner, Hans Zimmer and others. An alternate ending is absolutely essential viewing: it's entirely wrong for the movie, but so brilliantly acted (entirely improvisation) by Hurt and Hunter that it must be seen as its own excellent thing. You also get some deleted scenes which are well worth a look (many of which revolve around an intriguing subplot featuring Hurt and a gay character who was cut from the film entirely). Both the alternate ending and the deleted scenes come with commentary from Brooks. There's a good 18-minute video interview with Susan Zirinsky, the model for the character of Jane, plus a vintage featurette (8 minutes), a theatrical trailer, and a booklet featuring an essay by critic Carrie Rickey.
The world will always have a place for Tom, because the world will always have a place for attractive people. The world will always have a place for Jane, because the world will always need workaholics who strive to make people like Tom look good. Sadly, for people like Aaron who just want to do good, honest, nuanced reporting, the lucrative job opportunities are becoming few and far between. This story is intimate enough to be that of three specific people, but observant enough to be that of countless others. Broadcast News remains a great film, and Criterion's release does it justice.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 132 Minutes
Release Year: 1987
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Alternate Ending
* Deleted Scenes