James L. Brooks’s Broadcast News (1987) seems, at first glance, to play by the rules of well-known tropes; watching it, you may initially see only the known quantities—
- Professional woman kicking ass at work by virtue of her willingness to compartmentalize her emotions into a scheduled 15-minute cry per day
- Friend-zoned man who is intellectually a star but whose bitterness over not being better appreciated has soured him on most people and created a sort of resentment-arrogance whirlpool around him
- Charismatic, attractive newcomer who needs someone else to do the deep thinking for him, but who is undoubtedly very good in bed
- Stranger comes to town and gets in the middle of established relationships
- Resentment brews, followed by reluctant appreciation
- Traditional “marriage plot” love triangle provides tension
- Woman falls for stranger and then discovers he’s got a secret that throws her
- Things fall apart
- Denouement, resolution
- Busy rooms full of anchormen and women (but mostly men) breaking international news stories
- Reams of paperwork, urgent telephone calls on devices with cords plugged into the wall, earpieces with rapid instructions issuing through them
- Washington, D.C. as seen through the rose-colored glasses of the 1980s—romantic and official and trustworthy and important and full of very busy people
How much more conventional could you get? But Broadcast News is so much greater than the sum of its perhaps predictable parts. Brooks manages to pull off a remarkable trick: he lulls you into thinking you’re watching a breezy romantic comedy, when in fact you’re watching an often cynical and strikingly accurate commentary on not just the moral corruption and disintegration of objective journalism, but also the chaotic vagaries of human nature itself. It’s certainly possible to list the components of the film in a way that looks predictable—but the actors, camera work, and subtext deepen the experience of Broadcast News in a way that allows it to continue to feel vibrant and true and painful, 35 years on.
It’s impossible to watch Broadcast News today and not think about the way it predicted the current state of “mainstream” news: hungry for clicks, often biased, grounded in personality and sensationalism. The film’s commentary on the devolving nature of the news media is clear from the start, when we see news producer Jane Craig (Holly Hunter) delivering a speech at a journalism convention. She decries the growing tendency of networks to feature soft “human interest” stories over more complex and dark political news, and lambasts the desire for news to “entertain” rather than to inform; meanwhile, her audience appears supremely bored by her primary message, but idiotically applauds the clip Jane shows as a “bad” example of Real News. Television and the competition for ratings, Brooks implies, has ruined a once-upstanding profession—as well as its consumers.
Within that profession, the lowest moral rungs on the ladder also happen to be the most visible and highest-paid individuals: the news anchors themselves. “What can you do with yourself if all you can do is look good?” asks a young Tom Grunick (Kimber Shoop, later played by William Hurt) as the chyron FUTURE NETWORK ANCHORMAN pops up on the bottom of the screen. It’s timed perfectly for a laugh, but is also cutting enough that you feel some anger behind it: this is a world where the faces of reliable and important communication are façades, fronting nothing but a very good producer on an earpiece. Brooks is anything but subtle about the film’s stand on the “business” of news. But what about where this movie stands on, well, people themselves?
The opening sequence of the film, featuring each of the three main characters as children, importantly depicts each of them as simply smaller versions of the adults they will eventually become. It’s fascinating that Michael Ballhaus—known for his signature moving camera, which he employed in everything from that incredible tracking shot in Goodfellas (you know the one) to the lush, sweeping shots in Bram Stoker’s Dracula—was the cinematographer for Broadcast News. We see some of that moving lens scattered throughout this film as well—and we follow, proto-Sorkin style, the rapidly walking-and-talking (and sometimes running) network employees through the halls and studios of their place of work.
There is a pointed juxtaposition between the way these characters seem to be always on the move and their lack of evolution as people. This isn’t a world where people change. It’s a world where their personalities are treading water, marching in place. Jane has retained her impulsive but self-assured knowledge that she is always right, combined with a tendency to rant compellingly at anyone who disagrees with her until they simply cannot find the proper words to respond. Aaron (Albert Brooks), a talented journalist with an atrocious screen presence, has always clung to his words and sentences in the face of what he sees as the idiotic masses who surround him (and yes, he’s always flaunted that specific combination of arrogance and a giant chip on his shoulder that comes with being blessed by high intelligence and a lack of social skills). And Tom? Well, Tom has always had his face.
No one really changes. But, Broadcast News asks, isn’t that kind of beautiful?
If there’s anything that contemporary life—and especially the last two and a half years—has taught us, it’s that we can’t rely on systems. You may find yourself slipping into dark cynicism, pondering whether the government is actually interested in passing laws to protect its people. Whether the president, no matter which party he belongs to, will do anything to enact meaningful change. Whether the healthcare system is equipped to help those in need. You may wonder why, in so many places, housing is inaccessible; why public education so often harms and neglects children instead of nurturing them. You may even feel that art itself has, too frequently, been abandoned in favor of capitalistic content.
The truth is, of course, that—as James L. Brooks understands—our systems have continually failed us, often quietly and without fanfare. The truth is that people who are good at what they do are not often rewarded for that merit, while people who have lucked into what they do thanks to charisma and connections—who manage to get promoted to a level where they don’t need to do much other than draft off of the legwork others have done for them—take home the big paychecks. The truth is that the man who may initially think he doesn’t deserve what he has ends up feeling like he has absolutely earned everything. The truth is that when you see down to the deep dark heart of the institutional and political structures we can’t escape in this country, it’s natural to feel disgusted and angry enough that your feelings bleed into some kind of twisted attraction.
Maybe it’s a hope that loving something on the edge of bad could be enough to make it good. Maybe it’s self-hatred. Maybe it’s a function of the intense compartmentalization required to exist in a world like this—a world where you have practiced putting blinders on so frequently that you have managed to frame the evil in front of you with only the attractive, beautiful part unblocked.
I know that I fall into the trap of turning these feelings over in my mind too often, dwelling too deeply in the holes I perceive all around me. So what keeps me going? Why am I still waking up, making lesson plans, reading books, driving my kids to baseball practice, buying a hybrid minivan to fit my third kid into, taking pictures of mountains, thinking about movies?
Maybe it has something to do with the reliably flawed people I know I belong with.
Jane, Aaron, and Tom belong with each other. They are not always good for each other, but they challenge each other in ways that no one else can. There is a comfort in their rhythms, a security in their predictable fights. There is even satisfaction in the way their relationships dissolve towards the end of the movie; they dissolve (we know in our hearts even before the “seven years later” epilogue begins) so that they can come back together.
Jane and Aaron belong with each other because they both believe themselves to be on the right side of history, even as Jane, especially, proves less morally uncompromised than she’d like to admit. When they’re in Central America together for a story on the Contras and Sandinistas, Jane insists that they are not there “to stage the news.” She catches a cameraman asking a revolutionary to put boots on—boots that represented the only supplies the revolutionaries had received in a recent drop. “Sir, you can do whatever you want,” she insists. “It’s your choice.” But a news camera is to “real life” what observation is to a quantum particle; you can think of it as an objective lens to measure and record something with certainty, but the very fact that it exists changes the situation in ways you could never know.
The man puts on the boot. The boot ends up becoming the perfect button at the end of the segment—so perfect that the big-deal evening news anchor in New York, Bill Rorish (a pitch-perfect Jack Nicholson, who refused to be credited or paid for his part in the film), calls you up to compliment you. And really, isn’t that the way it always was going to organically unfold? It felt good to say you weren’t there to manipulate anything, didn’t it? Oh, sure, of course it did.
And Aaron—the one person who really does care about the news as news—who really could be said to have an unfailingly strict moral compass—can’t deliver it effectively. His attempt to anchor the weekend news is played for comedy (the voluminous amounts of sweat pouring down his brow and soaking his shirt is downright slapstick), but it hovers on the border of tragedy; hard work and dedication and belief in the truth never pays off. His black-and-white morality, too, looks less and less admirable by the end of the film; when he wields it as a weapon against Jane, using moral rightness to justify saying truly awful things to her (and, of course, ruining her budding relationship with Tom), it’s hard to root for him.
Aaron tries to convince Jane they belong together because Tom is some outsized representation of evil. “This isn’t friendship,” Jane says, in one of her most lucid moments, as Aaron lays out the case for Tom’s depravity. “You’re crazy, you know that?” Aaron continues to list the ways in which he believes Tom is “the Devil,” leaning heavily into Arendt’s concept of the banality of evil:
“What do you think the Devil’s gonna look like if he’s around?…No one’s gonna be taken in by a guy with a long red pointy tail! Come on. What’s he gonna sound like? *roars* No…He will be attractive. He’ll be nice and helpful. He’ll get a job where he influences a great, God-fearing nation. He’ll never do an evil thing. He’ll never deliberately hurt a living thing. He will just bit by little bit lower our standards where they’re important. Just a tiny little bit. Just coax along flash over substance. Just a tiny little bit. And he’ll talk about all of us really being salesmen. And he’ll get all the great women.”
It’s hard to hear this and not think of so many of the devils that have populated the American landscape in the decades since Broadcast News. It’s hard to hear this and not agree. But the undertone of jealous rage in Aaron’s voice also makes you wonder: is this really about some unforgivable lowering of standards, or is it about Aaron’s desire for Jane to belong to him and him alone?
And here, again, I come back to the comfort that comes from knowing someone so well you can predict the weapons they’ll use against you. It’s forgivable for Aaron to act this way; he’s not entirely wrong, after all. And it’s not like Jane has never acted similarly: at a work gathering, the president of the network pulls her aside, finds himself in a disagreement with her, and snipes, “It must be nice to always believe you know better…to always think you’re the smartest person in the room.” “No, it’s awful,” Jane whispers, in a lovely little comedic beat on Hunter’s part that also reveals her character’s Achilles heel. In an even more blatantly petty act, she does send Jennifer, Tom’s momentary love interest, to Alaska just because she doesn’t want Jennifer and Tom to be together.
So yes, Jane and Aaron belong together, and it feels good to believe you’re always right, and no one really ever can act outside of their own selfish interests for long, and the only way to be on the right side of history is to somehow step outside of it altogether, and no one can do that, and all of us need, at some point, to look at a person we understand inside and out and allow ourselves to say all the worst things, knowing we’ll be embraced again someday.
Jane and Aaron may belong with each other for all of these reasons, but Jane and Tom deserve each other, fill in each other’s gaps. They are the brain and the body, the tongue and the mouth. One compartmentalizes, one operates by osmosis. One sees the larger world as a hurdle to be leaped, one sees it as an ocean to swim through.
Tom is not smart, but he’s charismatic, and he’s practiced enough at navigating situations just slightly over his head that his smooth delivery of information doesn’t miss a beat. Hurt plays his stupidity with a good-natured humility that draws you to him; his Tom has the naïve smile of an eager friend, the uninhibited excitement of someone who doesn’t look too far down the road, the blank resting stare of a person without any anxiety or complicated emotions rippling through his synapses. (William Hurt is supremely adept at playing men who are slightly too dim to successfully navigate the situations they are in—think of the divinely ignorant Ned Racine in Body Heat, or the strangely passive Macon Leary in The Accidental Tourist.) Most importantly, Tom doesn’t pretend to be anything he’s not. He acknowledges his shortcomings as a news anchor, and isn’t above asking for help. Yes, he’s later painted—at least by Jane and Aaron—as the villain of their trio of colleagues; but is he really that bad?
His cardinal sin, as uncovered by Aaron and conveyed with calculated faux-offhandedness to Jane, is that, during the story he conceived of and reported on about date rape, the tear he shed while listening to a victim’s story was generated after the fact to create a good reaction shot. But we also learn that Tom did feel sincere emotions while listening to the victim’s narration of her attack, and we know the segment reached a lot of viewers who sincerely needed to see it—viewers who themselves had been victims, or who were close to victims, and for whom seeing this report on the news would have been instrumental in providing validation and confirmation of their experiences.
So, sure, crocodile tears and a few white lies—but are his actions that bad? Does he deserve to get frozen out of Jane’s affections—left at the airport—seen as unforgivably unethical? Are his actions, at the end of the day, any worse than Jane’s in the Central American jungle, or is he just less sure that he’s done the “right thing”?
There are moments where Ballhaus’s lens works hard to indicate the essential parallels between Jane and Tom. During one of Tom’s first pressure tests at the anchor desk, the doomed love triangle becomes a sort of Cyrano-esque communication triangle: Aaron relays information to Jane, who then feeds that info to Tom via earpiece, who speaks it aloud calmly and authoritatively into the cameras. “I say it here, it comes out there,” Aaron muses, watching Tom on his home television. In a great split diopter shot, the left side of the screen is occupied by the back of Tom’s head, featuring the all-important earpiece, and the right side highlights Jane’s face way up in the control booth—two peas in a pod, both in crystal-clear focus, simultaneously. We return to a similar split diopter shot moments later, but this time we see Tom’s face on the news screen and the back of Jane’s head; though they’re on the same sides of the frame as they were before, it still feels like a bit of a crossing-the-180 moment, as the positions they are facing are flipped. One’s face takes the place of the other. It reminds me of one of their first scenes together in Jane’s bedroom—the way they face each other across Jane’s bed, mirror images of each other despite their many differences.
Broadcast News is not, after all, about a man who makes a moral mistake. It’s about how everyone’s lives are mired in the moral mistakes promoted by the systems they’re in. It’s about friendship, and not knowing how to love, and broken trust, and resignation. It’s about watching people around you make different choices and finding a way to justify and live with the choices you’ve made.
When I first saw the last five or so minutes of the film, I hated it.
Seven years have passed. Jane has an absolutely atrocious haircut, and is dating some awful-sounding man who loves boating. Tom is inheriting Bill Rorish’s evening news anchor position, and is engaged to an appropriately vacant-looking blonde. Aaron has a cute curly-haired child and has never returned to the news (or, seemingly, to work at all) after the climactic network layoffs during which, in true Aaron fashion, he quit—despite being told he could keep his job—because he morally disagreed with the treatment he and others were being given. (Jane, in one of her more Tom moments, not only did not quit, but even accepted a promotion.)
The three reconvene under a gazebo in the rain. Pleasantries are exchanged. Seven years makes everything past look blurry and okay, as though shot through a greased lens. Will Jane accept the position of managing editor, becoming Tom’s boss, returning to her role feeding him the stories, the headlines, the transitional beats? Of course she will. She wasn’t sure that she wanted to leave Washington, but the job’s too good to turn down. (And really, you’re telling me that you don’t think she and Tom will give their relationship another try, even with—especially with—the looming pressure of their new significant others? Give me a break. There’s no way that relationship stays strictly platonic, even to the detriment of everyone involved.)
The scene leaves a sour taste in the mouth. There’s something supremely cynical—even for my tastes—about the way these characters have ended up, the private boxes they’ve agreed to stay in. None of them has changed for the better. Not one has broken the mold they set for themselves in those opening sequences as children. All have decided to lean into the roles they have always played, the flaws they have always displayed. I admit to watching the alternate ending and wanting that to be the final say for these characters—to wanting heat and passion and anger and some kind of imperfect coupling.
But the more I sit with the actual end of Broadcast News, the more I understand it. Systems are permanently flawed, what passes for truth and information in this country gets more and more fuzzy every year, people sometimes seem to exist solely in order to let other people down. Why not fend for yourself? Why not walk away from something that never really made you happy? Why not choose a little moral flexibility, if it seems to pay off in a wider way in the end? Why not come back to the little enclave of people you have let your guard down with—and hurt—and been hurt by—and let yourselves stand together under a roof looking out at the rain, talking about nothing?
At the end of the day, Broadcast News seems to say, that knowledge that you still know someone you once knew, that you have been known, is a more powerful glue than anything else. So maybe this ending isn’t so cynical, after all. Maybe it’s human; maybe it’s honest. We can only do so much to right societal wrongs or to soothe global instability—but we can do a lot more when we’re surrounded by people who help us see ourselves for who we are and always have been, and who challenge us to be the best versions of ourselves that we can be. And that, I suppose, is about as far from cynical as you can get.