If I Were the Devil, You’d Be the Only One I Would Tell

Broadcast News (1987)

Holly Hunter in BROADCAST NEWS | art by Brianna Ashby
illustration by Brianna Ashby

I don’t think I’ve lived a single day of adult life in which Broadcast News did not cross my mind. It’s a film so highly specific that it feels purpose-built for imprinting itself on your consciousness, stuffed with little details that are so weird you can’t compare them to anything but real life—in fact, roughly 25% of my thoughts about the film are just the sound of Holly Hunter shouting “I know how to have a burger by myself” and the sight of Albert Brooks mixing a cocktail using the most deranged method possible.

Broadcast News presents adulthood as an exercise in weathering the relentless sensation of being not-quite-enough and not-quite-right. It’s a sensation amplified by living under precarious circumstances—circumstances which have only worsened in the nearly 32 years since the movie was released—but which somehow always ends up feeling like an individual problem. It feels like a problem you could overcome if you could only make yourself a little less yourself; not radically changing the core of your being, but making little adjustments until things feel less unsteady. As though you can just outgrow your worst instincts, or force yourself to feel or not feel a particular way, and then all the friction between yourself and the world around you will somehow disappear. This is, of course, a delusion, and the movie spends two-plus hours humanely but accurately dissecting how and why we make ourselves and one another suffer because of it.

High-strung, high-achieving TV news producer Jane Craig (Holly Hunter) wants to be less off-putting and less attracted to Tom Grunick (William Hurt), a charming new reporter who embodies everything she hates about the dumbing down of the industry. (Between this and Terms of Endearment, James L. Brooks did a lot in the 1980s to advance the cause of women who make terrible decisions due to horniness. A true ally.) Her best friend and fellow champion of journalistic integrity, reporter Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks), would like to stop feeling plagued by insecurity—and to stop being in love with Jane. And Tom mostly just wants attention, but would also love to have the intellect and skill required to stop feeling like a total fraud.

While your empathetic mileage may vary, Broadcast News depicts each of these dilemmas as impossibly difficult in their own distinct, terrible way. Even Tom, a man whose inner life is just a mix of all the external validation he’s ever received and a strategic plan for ways to earn more of it in the future, represents a dark possibility: maybe you have impostor syndrome because you’re actually an impostor. But the arc that really fucks me up is Jane’s. It’s not that I identify with her as a character—any resemblance between myself and any Type A overachiever, fictional or real, is purely coincidental. But while I’m not particularly like Jane, I’ve been somebody’s Jane, and I’ve had an Aaron of my own.

And I cannot overstate how much it sucked.

***

Broadcast News (1987) | 20th Century Fox
20th Century Fox

One of the most remarkable things about Broadcast News is that every conversation Aaron and Jane hold is at least 50% nonsense. In the first half of the film, that rate creeps much closer to 100%: “I’ll meet you at the place near the thing where we went that one time,” he tells her, and she requires no additional clarification, doesn’t question which of the many places near the things they’ve gone he might possibly be referring to. She doesn’t need to. They have their own shorthand, one that makes them capable of extrapolating broader meaning from glares and tones of voice and sentence fragments, one that exempts them from all the normal rules of human workplace communication.

This shorthand is one of the first things the movie establishes, introducing it immediately following an opening sequence which carbon-dates its characters’ personality flaws back to their respective childhoods. In the first moments we see them as adults, Aaron and Jane participate in a rapid-fire phone call that swings wildly between brisk updates on ongoing budgetary issues and Aaron’s sub-par Arnold Schwarzenegger impression. Its contents are so meaningless to anyone but the two of them that it should alienate us, but instead it just feels like a warm welcome.

It’s an act of tremendous friendliness and generosity to let us hear dialogue that so closely echoes our own conversations with the people who know us best. Instead of reflexively thinking, Nobody talks like this (my instinctive, contrarian reaction to dialogue that’s overly precious about the specialness of its characters), I find myself realizing, Oh god, this is how wild it sounds when I talk to my best friend. Jane and Aaron’s words are different than mine and hers, but the way they get used are the same. And, like any other language, it’s not a monolith but a living thing that expands and contracts in relationship to how well they know one another. The incomprehensible sentence fragments they casually toss around can’t be separated out from the deep vulnerabilities they share with one another in explicit, excruciating detail.

Which only makes their conversations feel more true-to-life; that kind of vocabulary isn’t easy to come by, in a fictional world or in ours. It requires long hours spent in close proximity, hours that add up to a critical mass of shared experience, as well as genuine enjoyment of those hours. And, as we get older, the overlap between the people we like and the people we spend the most time with tends to shrink. I share a language with all of my best friends from childhood, and each of the close friends I met through work. And I used to share one with my Aaron.

He and I didn’t fall into an easy conversational rhythm so much as we created a new language out of spare parts: bits of hometown slang, references to the places where our cultural tastes overlapped, disparaging nicknames for coworkers. At the beginning, joking around was the whole point. Our friendship took shape as a reaction against all the time we spent inside classrooms trying to sound competent and erudite. I loved the stupid things he came up with while trying to get me to laugh; I loved coming up with stupid things that made him laugh even more. He grew up in a conservative religious tradition, and whenever I landed an especially good (read: especially inappropriate) joke, he would start to tear up and wheeze “I’m not going to Heaven when I die,” which left me feeling as accomplished as a compliment from my thesis advisor or a solid day of teaching.

But it eventually became more serious and open, a space for airing out our weirdest insecurities, our most irrational fears for the future, our most mortifying moments from the past. This wasn’t an intentional or thoughtful development: one day he told an offhand joke that hit too close to the bone, and I told him so and told him why, and then everything became fair game for our conversations. Our experiment in earnestness, however, only made our conversations more inscrutable. Our discussions must have been incomprehensible to anyone outside our group of friends; they would be incomprehensible to me if I could listen to them again now.

***

Holly Hunter | 20th Century Fox

When Broadcast News’ characters aren’t speaking in code, they’re explicitly blurting out every thought and feeling that passes through their minds—and not in an earnest, melodramatic, This is Us way, but in a maladaptive, antisocial one. This tendency isn’t presented as admirable honesty or edgy flouting of the social contract, but mostly as self-sabotage—like when Jane lays into Tom, a man she is actively trying to sleep with, about his sub-par journalism skills, only to find out that she’s now responsible for producing segments centered on said skills. It’s deeply stressful, but everybody gets away with it because there is not one filter to be found in the whole newsroom: After being laid off, a nameless character responds to his boss’s offer of help with, “I certainly hope you die soon.” At one point, Blair (Joan Cusack) tells Jane, “Except for socially, you’re my role model,” and Jane accepts it as a compliment—which it is, but only here.

This environment of wholly unregulated ids is a jarring backdrop for Aaron’s refusal to tell Jane he loves her throughout the first half of the film, as well as Jane’s refusal to acknowledge Aaron’s feelings for her. It’s not that he doesn’t make his affection known. He always positions himself as close to Jane as he can possibly be, constantly laments his singleness to her, and walks all the way up to the line of drunkenly kissing her on the mouth and describing her to her face as “the one thing that makes me feel good and makes immediate sense.”

And it’s not that Jane doesn’t pick up on these hints, which are so obvious they barely qualify as hints at all. She laughs off his almost-confessions, hesitates for just the tiniest moment after he kisses her on the cheek. But it’s the one area of her life in which she exercises restraint in revealing everything she knows and everything she thinks about what she knows. (Weirdly, no one else acknowledges it either, which is the one detail of the film that feels a little bit off to me; unrequited crushes are an office gossip goldmine for those who aren’t involved in them.)

And it’s not that Aaron doesn’t know that Jane knows, which is, of course, why he stops just short of saying “I love you” outright. “I would give anything if you were two people,” he tells her on the night of the drunken kiss, “so I could call up the one who’s my friend and tell her about the one that I like so much.” If you suspect your feelings might be reciprocated, you don’t wish for a woman who’s a precise clone of your beloved in all ways but loving you back, nor do you worry about losing the woman you already know—the one you seek out when you’re upset, the one who does you the courtesy of pretending this whole conversation never happened when you see each other at work the next day.

***

Albert Brooks and Holly Hunter in Broadcast News (1987) | 20th Century Fox

When Aaron does finally tell Jane that he loves her, it’s the culminating moment of one of the most exhausting verbal fights in all of cinema. After his flop-sweat broadcast and her “professional conclave,” Jane goes to Aaron’s house so they can hash out their respective evenings, and mentions that she thinks she might be in love with Tom. The wheels come off at this point: he tells her to leave, and she storms off, but turns around to primally scream, “THIS IS IMPORTANT TO ME.” It’s not clear whether this is their friendship or the relationship she’s trying to pursue with Tom—Aaron is doing his best to ruin both—but he convinces her to stay, only to have to step outside for a moment to collect himself.

She sits in the living room, tiny and vulnerable in her massive ball gown as she waits. Her rage gives way to teariness; she knows what’s coming. (Something I think about all the time is that Holly Hunter did this and Raising Arizona, two of the greatest performances of all time, in the same year. Something I try very hard not to think about ever is that she was the same age when she did this that I am right now.) But then he returns, calmer, like he might manage to salvage the situation. He insists he’s only trying to be a good friend before he delivers an impassioned monologue about all the ways Tom stands in opposition to her values, and it seems fine until he builds up to “Tom, while being a very nice guy, is the devil.”

“This isn’t friendship,” she shoots back—not quite we’re not friends, but getting there. He continues rattling off evidence in support of his theory while she paces, stopping only to yell that she thinks he’s the devil. “You know I’m not,” he says, “Because I think we have the kind of friendship where if I were the devil, you’d be the only one I would tell.” The argument drags on, to the point where it seems possible that they’ll just keep debating the identity of the devil forever, and he’ll never get an opportunity to hit the self-destruct button on their friendship. But then he tacks it on to the end of a largely unrelated thought: “And I’m in love with you.”

She flinches like she’s been slapped, one of the only moments in the movie where she’s forced to confront a possibility she hasn’t game-planned in her head a million times over. It’s not that she doesn’t know this information already, but she never believed their friendship would hit this limit, that there would be a point at which one of their individual interests would outweigh their investment in each other’s happiness. He slumps on the couch, exhausted: “I’ve got to not say that out loud; it takes too much out of me.” They sit in silence for a few seconds, not looking at each other, both seeming completely scraped out. It seems like it’s as bad as it’s going to get for them, like the big, awful moment has passed. And then it just keeps getting progressively worse.

***

I don’t know when I started to suspect that my Aaron had feelings for me, but I worked very hard to convince myself my suspicions were wrong. I told myself I was delusional and/or vain and/or poisoned by growing up in a media landscape that suggested it was impossible for straight men to be just friends with women. It didn’t feel good to talk myself out of my instincts, but it felt better than forcing myself to recognize that our friendship was not a sustainable one.

I never considered trying to see if I could reciprocate his feelings, trying to find a way to translate the emotional intimacy I felt with him into a different context. Romantic relationships can grow from friendships, of course; most people’s ideal partnership includes close friend-level conversation and companionship. But we can’t really force our feelings about each other to take on a different shape—everything would be too easy if we could.

My Aaron told me he loved me after finding out he’d gotten a job in another state, and I’ve never been as angry with another person as I was that morning. I was furious that he’d made this a problem I now had to solve, that he’d taken away the reliable, uncomplicated part of my workday sooner than necessary. I don’t know what I wanted him to do instead—Keep it to himself forever? Leave me in that limbo where I knew but did not know?—but our friendship did not survive his honesty. In fairness to him, I doubt it would have lasted much longer if he’d kept things to himself. It’s an easy claim to make in retrospect, but I don’t think it was a matter of if our relationship would fall apart, but rather how and when. Still, I sometimes wish he would have held it in, played the long game and let distance do the work of gradually unraveling our bond.

***

Holly Hunter and Albert Brooks in Broadcast News (1987) | 20th Century Fox

Our culture positions friendships as tertiary relationships, ranked below familial and romantic bonds; our screen narratives usually treat them like a good thing to have, but not a site for the kind of intense feeling that makes for gripping stories, especially not stories about adults. Most falling-outs between friends in TV and film only plant devastation so they can reap greater satisfaction later during an inevitable moment of reconciliation. When there’s a one-sided attraction involved in the conflict, the resolution is that those emotions turn out to be reciprocated—which is even better than reuniting as friends, since it’s a leveling-up in the relational hierarchy.

It’s rare that we watch a friendship dissolve on screen, and even rarer that we witness one end permanently, which is why it’s so remarkable that Broadcast News manages to make the friendship breakup between Aaron and Jane so much more devastating than the romantic one between Tom and Jane. The final act of the movie tracks the dismantling of both relationships, and Jane is equally angry at and disappointed in both men. But the nature of that anger and disappointment is different: Tom fails her when he turns out to be the person she’s suspected him to be all along; Aaron fails her by doing things she never imagined him to be capable of. Both ultimately reveal failures of judgment on her part, but the former is one she saw coming and willfully ignored, while the latter is one she never anticipated.

That’s not to say that the breakup between Jane and Tom is fun or easy (shouting in an airport is never a sign of things going well), but it is a long-run good, a baseline necessity for each one’s personal growth. Jane can’t continue to be with Tom after discovering that he faked his tears during his date rape segment. It’s not only a violation of every personal and professional belief around which she’s built her life, it’s also proof that he’s not capable of the emotional intimacy she’s been searching for. And even if their ethics had aligned Jane wouldn’t be a good fit for Tom either—his attraction to her is fully tangled up in his desperation for her approval.

The way Tom hurts Jane is incidental, while Aaron willfully and repeatedly tries to inflict pain after his big confession. He isn’t wrong about many of the things he says to her during the waning of their relationship (especially not the things he says about Tom, which are exaggerated but not incorrect). But he’s wrong to say them when and how and why he does. There may be some concern for her buried beneath all the insecurity and anger, but it mostly feels like he’s trying to punish her; he’s a more searing indictment of Nice Guy pathology than all the mid-2010s feminist blog content combined.  

And yet, even though Aaron behaves like such a tremendous asshole in these moments, the reason he’s so hurtful is that he knows her well enough to know what will hurt. Every insult isn’t just an insult; it’s also a reminder of the intimacy they’re both giving up, and Jane’s reactions to Aaron’s lashing-out often belie as much sadness as anger. The worst moments of their relationship are sick inversions of its best: the open expression of vulnerability, the genuine investment in each other’s happiness, the hyping-up of each other’s successes, the rich set of shared experiences, the comfort level they don’t seem to have with anyone else. The end of their friendship is a genuine, permanent loss—they’re civil to one another when their paths cross years later in the film’s final scene, but they’ll never be this close again. Though the contours of their grief are often ugly, they’re both right to be grieving it.