Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (December 17, 2010)
Back in 1983, writer/producer/director James L. Brooks scored both box office and Oscar gold with Terms of Endearment. Four years later, he’d return with a follow-up: 1987’s Broadcast News. While not as commercially successful or as big an awards draw, the movie found an audience and continues to be viewed positively more than two decades later.
I’d not seen it since the late 80s, so I figured I’d like to take another look at it. TV news producer Jane Craig (Holly Hunter) decries her industry’s move toward fluffy infotainment and bemoans the absence of hard news from network broadcasts. After a disastrous speech on the subject, she finds one fan: local TV anchor Tom Grunick (William Hurt), a handsome dimwit who gets ahead in business solely due to his looks.
Though she finds herself attracted to Tom, she feels repelled by everything he represents in the “looks over talent” world of TV news – and she ends up stuck with him, as Tom gets a job at her network. As she works with Tom, a relationship slowly builds despite Jane’s reservations – and despite the presence of another potential suitor, best friend/favorite reporter Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks). The film deals with their tangled relationships.
Going into this modern screening of News, I maintained a vague memory of it, and I thought I liked it, though obviously I wasn’t bowled over by it. If you love a movie, you usually remember it very well, while my recollections of this one remained loose. Heck, I forgot that Jack Nicholson played a small role until he appeared on screen!
As I got into the film, I began to realize why I didn’t have stronger impressions of it: while enjoyable and utterly professional, it’s just not a terribly memorable film. Indeed, at times it feels like the whole is less than the sum of its parts; with all the talent at its disposal and a variety of strengths, I feel like I should really enjoy the movie, but I still end up less than enthralled.
Perhaps part of my problem stems from my feeling that the film lost steam as it went. It opens with funny prologues that feature the three main characters as kids, and then it digs into the world of network news with gusto. The film tends to work best when it follows the professional side of things; I rather like its “inside baseball” take on big-time TV newscasts.
When it follows the personal relationships – which is the topic that dominates the second half of the film – it falls moderately flat. Part of my complaint comes from my impression that it delivers a romantic triangle that isn’t. I was never sure if we were supposed to believe that Aaron had a shot with Jane. I suspect the filmmakers want us to think he could’ve ended up with her, but they invest in this half-heartedly at best. Jane treats Aaron in such a sisterly way that she doesn’t even seem dismissive when he makes his interest known; she barely appears to even acknowledge his feelings for her.
Jane doesn’t tend to come across as a particularly complex individual. The movie sets up an intriguing theme given Jane’s strongly offered preference for substance over style. With that idea in place, the film should depict her conflict in the form of her dueling suitors: does she go for super-smart, super-talented but schlubby Aaron, or does she opt for the handsome but intellectually inferior Tom?
At no point does the choice ever seem in doubt. This doesn’t mean that she finally settles for either, but it does mean that the film’s basic love triangle is essentially non-existent, and we barely see Jane fight her romantic urges. Oh, she puts up some token resistance to her attraction to Tom, but it doesn’t add up to much. The absence of that character depth causes damage to the film and leaves it more superficial than I’d like.
As for our main actors, all got Oscar nominations, but the two men offer the best work. In particular, Hurt offers a deft turn as Tom. Since he usually plays smart, clever characters, it’s unusual to see Hurt as such a dope, but he avoids the pitfalls that might make Tom a cartoon. I like the movie’s choice to make him a nice guy who strives for improvement; it would’ve been easy to create a fatuous narcissist, but instead, we kind of root for Tom because we can see that he’s interested in bettering himself despite his lack of natural intellectual gifts.
Brooks’ take on Aaron is more predictable but still quite enjoyable. Brooks basically makes Aaron a riff on the same kind of funny, self-deprecating character he often seems to play; to some degree, I’d guess Brooks just plays himself in these parts. He handles the comedic scenes well, but he also adds a nice touch of sadness and longing to Aaron, so Brooks isn’t a one-trick pony.
Unfortunately, I feel less positive about Hunter, who I do think fails to bring much depth to her part. From the childhood prologue on, we see Jane as a picky, Type A sort, and Hunter can’t make her likable. While we’re supposed to see her as spunky, we just view her as annoying. It becomes tough to see why Aaron and Tom are so taken with her, as she often comes across as bossy and irritating.
It doesn’t help that the movie acts as a virtual catalog of Bad 80s hair and fashions. The coifs prove to be especially galling. I particularly enjoy the big Cinderella moment when Jane dolls herself up for a date with Tom at the Correspondents Dinner. She takes a plain but attractive bob and turns it into Frizz Mania; the world’s worst perm gives Hunter a “stuck her finger in a light socket” look, so just when we’re supposed to be dazzled by her loveliness, we find ourselves bent over with laughter.
But I can’t really fault the film for its dated qualities, as those tend to be inevitable. I will criticize it for its lack of willingness to avoid conventional paths and its general slowness. At 132 minutes, the movie overstays its welcome by a good half an hour; with a brisker pace, I think it’d avoid some of its pitfalls.
And whose idea was the coda? I won’t reveal what happens in this scene, but it shows us the leads seven years after the movie’s events. Why? It feels utterly pointless, and it would’ve been more interesting to simply let the viewer speculate what happened. Instead, News wraps everything up in a neat bow, and I don’t like that.
Don’t get me wrong: this isn’t a bad film, and it’s often perfectly enjoyable. However, its negatives tend to stand out to me more than its positives, perhaps because they create a greater sense of disappointment. With a little tweaking, Broadcast News could’ve been great, so “perfectly enjoyable” makes it a definite letdown.