Sunday, March 13, 2016

Favorite Films: "Broadcast News"

There we were in 1987, when the Cold War was still freezing, when Iran-Contra had us debating, when we were still trying to get over being stunned by the Challenger and Chernobyl, when drivers in L.A. were shooting each other, when the market and an entire way of life was about to collapse, and when all of that made it a glorious time to be a journalist because so much was happening and journalism was the way people found out about all of it.

By that time, I had already made my decision to become a journalist, and had taken some big steps to getting there.  Earnest movies like Absence of Malice or All the President's Men proved that journalism was an honorable, noble profession that served the public good.  Before the Internet came along and changed everything, journalism was aspirational.

But what was it like to be a journalist?  What did it feel like?  Newspaper movies were like police procedurals, focused on a crime or an event and showing us the intensity of getting to the heart of the story.  Even a school field-trip visit to a newspaper newsroom showed you that it wasn't all like that.  So, what was it like, and what did journalists do and talk about when they weren't uncovering the cover-up?

I needed to know.  Then, out of nowhere, came Broadcast News, which from its first shot isn't about the news itself, or the way it's made, but about the people who make it.  Written by James L. Brooks, Broadcast News is on one level the maturation and expansion of the themes he explored in The Mary Tyler Moore Show, but it goes much deeper than that.  It is not a film version of a sitcom, nor is it a sitcom theme writ large.

It opens with a trio of flashbacks that tells us everything we need to know about its three central characters with a spectacular sort of storytelling economy: We see them as kids, for just a minute or two each, but we know their personalities, their neuroses and their ambitions are already set.

As Brooks's script cross-fades into its core story, it takes only a few effortless minutes to set up the three conflicts that will drive the film: News producer Jane Craig (Holly Hunter) is fed up with the trivialization of modern broadcast news, but the rest of her industry mocks her -- everyone except for Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks), the reporter from her Washington D.C. bureau who not-so-secretly loves her, not just because she's smart and pretty but because she has integrity, passion and heart, because she cares about making news better.

After a disastrous keynote speech that is meant to inspire her audience but instead causes them to leave the room, Tom Grunick (William Hurt) also refuses to make fun of Jane.  She thinks she might have a chance at seducing the tall, blond local news anchor, but he has something else in mind: He wants her professional advice on becoming better and smarter, because they're going to be working together -- though he's never been an actual reporter, he's been assigned to the D.C. bureau.

This rapid-fire setup of the story manages not just to communicate plot but to give us insight into what stirs and moves and scares and inspires these people, all within their first few scenes.

What's most interesting about Broadcast News is how it is all about character, the entire film is propelled by less by what Jane, Tom and Aaron do but by how they behave and react -- and not just them, but the impressive supporting characters who surround them and inhabit the film and make it feel alive.  There is a traditional three-act story here, but it's so loosely defined that the central conflict almost sneaks up on you; if you're not paying attention, you might even miss it.

And in between, there are newsroom discussions about things like whether cameras should be allowed in death-row executions.  The network boss comes in and fire longtime employees, people who are good at their craft, because they've got to cut costs so they can keep paying the anchorman and making more money.  Jane slowly realizes she is in love with Tom, even though on their first meeting she has warned him -- not dissuaded him or spurned him, but actually warned him, "You personify something I truly think is dangerous."

But it turns out Tom is good at his job.  That he's smart and handsome is almost inconsequential to Jane -- he's good, and she admires him for it. Her admiration turns into infatuation, and while that's happening, something else takes place that is, at the time, seems to underscore why she loves him.  Tom interviews a rape victim on camera.  During the interview, he cries.

Using the tear isn't the way Jane would have gone, she admits, but it's effective and it's real, and near the end of the movie, after Jane tells Aaron that she loves Tom, and she watches Aaron's heart break right there in front of her, she learns the truth: Aaron asks her to think about that tear, because Tom only had one camera at the interview.  To cry on screen, Tom would have had to fake it.  He would have had to stage the news.  He would have had to violate every professional and ethical standard that Jane stands for.

Broadcast News is a movie that allows people to make their decisions using their heads, which makes it harder to watch what happens to their hearts.

Unlike a standard romance, Jane feels betrayed not because Tom cheats on her romantically -- but because he has cheated in his job.  His action leaves everyone perplexed.  Tom understands he has crossed the line, but offers a legitimate defense: "It's hard not to cross it -- they keep moving the little sucker, don't they?"

But Aaron, the emotional anchor of the movie, is the most incensed of all.  In a movie that is one great scene after another, the best comes between Aaron and Jane after she reveals that, despite every professional standard and personal instinct, she loves him.  But Aaron can't let her.

The scene plays as a scathing commentary of the changing media landscape.  In the midst of the lighthearted, smart romantic comedy, it explodes like an unexpected rocket delivering an angry, bold indictment of the changes -- in media, in culture, in our personal standards -- that we understand now were only just beginning.  For all of its tender, loving observations of its characters, Broadcast News has some things to say that aren't at all nice.  Here's Brooks's script:
Tom, while being a very nice guy, is the devil. What do you think the devil's going to look like if he's around?  No one's going to be taken in by a guy with a long, red pointy tail.  No.  I'm semi-serious here. 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'll 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.
Keep in mind, 1987 was deep into Reagan's second term, so maybe it wasn't all about Tom Grunick. The movie follows up Aaron's outburst by showing how the newsroom gets decimated to keep the suits happy.  Broadcast News turns sad and melancholy, it recognizes the ways in which the lives those clever children at the beginning of the film imagined were bound to disappoint -- and concludes with an open-ended scene that accepts that they may never be quite as good separately as they were together.

But for me, Broadcast News promised something even more: That there were people in the world who couldn't stop asking questions about right and wrong, people for whom professional standards and personal integrity meant more than reward and expediency.

So, I watched Broadcast News six or eight times in the winter of 1987, and then I got a photographer to take headshot and I submitted it to local news stations and for about two weeks imagined that maybe I could be part of that life.

No, I didn't hear back from them.  But I did hear from newspapers, and I did become a journalist, albeit a journeyman who never really became an expert.  Yet, during my few years in professional journalism, I did indeed meet people who couldn't stop asking questions about right and wrong, people with the highest possible professional standards, with enormous personal integrity.  We received very little reward and thought as little as possible about expediency.  They were some of the best people I've ever known, and I got to be part of their world.  I'm always grateful for those few years.

No, we weren't as clever as Aaron or as beautiful as Tom or as chipper as Jane, but in many ways, Broadcast News got much of life as a newspaper journalist exactly right, back in a time when journalists cared most about getting it right, and trying to define exactly what that meant.  It was a great time to be a journalist, and an even greater time to want to be a journalist, something I'm reminded of every time I watch the warm and wonderful Broadcast News.

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