Review by Ryan Wilson

Some movies do more than entertain or enlighten us. Some movies literally predict the future, or at least have such a precise awareness of a theme that years later they seem prophetic. One such movie is the 1987 comedy-drama Broadcast News, re-released last week on DVD as part of the Criterion Collection.

Twenty-four years later, the film, which revolves around the characters working at a national nightly news broadcast, says more about the ethics of television journalism than any film before or after it. After saying this, I know many will immediately argue that the 1976 film Network takes that prize, but where that film satirically focuses more on the power of the media, Broadcast News realistically examines the lives and egos of the people who shape that power.

But first some historical context. When the film was released in 1987, hard TV news was nestled between the popular sentiment of a much younger Oprah Winfrey and the Barbara Walter’s style primetime interview. Within four years the business would attempt to dominate cable television, most notably after CNN’s coverage of the first Gulf War in 1990. Broadcast News is a perfect snapshot of newsmen and women grappling with what they need to become in order to adapt and survive within their profession. The story focuses on three broadcasters, each with an argument to make about the business. First there is Tom, played affably by William Hurt. He’s the handsome future anchorman, the guy who can comfort a nation on camera, yet knows little about what he’s actually reporting. He’s style over substance, and he knows this but doesn’t really care so long as he succeeds. Next there’s Aaron, played righteously by Albert Brooks. He’s the reporter in the field, the guy who actually knows more than what he’s allowed to report. He’s substance over style, and therefore condescending to everyone in the newsroom, isolating himself from his colleagues. Not surprisingly he refers to Tom as “the devil” and “the big joke.” Finally, we have Jane, played passionately by Holly Hunter. She’s the producer of the broadcast who must balance the two conflicting philosophies, even if it means compromising her values

All of this would make for a great film on its own, but the brilliance of Broadcast News is that writer-director James L. Brooks heightens the drama by turning the professional rivalry into a romantic one. Jane is physically attracted to Tom, yet she’s intellectually drawn more to Aaron, who is desperately in love with her. Remarkably, through this love triangle we can see just how these professionals will sort themselves out for the next twenty years. So many romantic comedies try to tie their characters’ personal lives to their professions, but no film does this as well as Broadcast News. At the heart of this is Holly Hunter’s Jane. Writer James L. Brooks had already written such strong screen women in 1983’s Terms of Endearment. But in creating Jane, he tapped more into the feminist paradox of the 1980s. Jane is at the top of her profession, and she knows it. She will not relent in a dog-fight over what she thinks is right, yet her hard-charging takes a toll on her privately. We see her taking time out of each day to take the phone off the hook in order to sob uncontrollably for a specifically allotted amount of time. It’s heartbreaking to watch. When one of her superiors sarcastically says that it must be great to be right all of the time, Jane honestly answers, “No, it’s awful.”

Jane might go through her entire life in this hard-as-nails manner if she weren’t so smitten with Tom, who makes her confront her femininity. Because of this she allows him to cry on the air when he interviews a rape victim, something that makes Aaron ask if there’s any actual news to report.

It’s this sort of moment that makes Broadcast News so prescient. Flash forward twenty-five years where we have morning show hosts like Katie Couric and Diane Sawyer hosting the nightly news and sobbing hosts like Glenn Beck manipulating evening cable shows, and you can see how this specific scene had its finger on the dam of broadcast ethics. The film also predicted the dangerous mixture of news becoming entertainment, resulting in the cult of personality and opinion. In one scene, after Tom is finished reporting on a foreign crisis, he pauses and then adds, “I think we’re going to be okay.” To which an older journalist who is watching the screen retorts, “Who cares what you think.”

When Jane finally tells Tom that he has crossed the moral line, he responds that “they keep moving the little sucker.” He is, of course, correct, but his response might as well be the current mantra over at Fox News and MSNBC, where anything is allowable as long as it garners ratings.

It’s easy enough to create a comedy spoofing the news business, where insipid anchors and overly stressed producers jockey themselves into powerful positions. But Broadcast News feels like more than just a shot taken at the media. The film feels like its own dialogue concerning how the news can and should be treated.

Take 5 on Film is a production of Delta College, Quality Public Radio.

© Ryan Wilson, 2011