DVD: Are We Allowed to Call Broadcast News a Classic Yet?

broadcastnews_225.jpgWhile Network is the movie that prophesied the future of corporate-controlled TV news, James L. Brooks' 1987 Broadcast News was more zeitgeist-y. The shift toward happy-talk infotainment had been going on long enough that Brooks had satirized it in the 1970s on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, but the battle against what Holly Hunter's character calls "the historic influence of Entertainment Tonight" had not been so roundly lost as it is now.

And so, while Broadcast News doesn't get the raves that the more prescient Network generally does, a new Criterion Collection DVD makes this case that this smart, funny, and topical romantic comedy ranks among Hollywood's best. And after watching this nearly 25-year-old movie again, it's a strong case.

Hunter (in her second screen appearance -- and Raising Arizona hadn't even come out yet when they cast her) plays type-A news producer Jane Craig, who finds herself in a romantic triangle between her best friend, brainy and neurotic field reporter Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks), and intellectually dim rising network news star Tom Grunick (William Hurt). As both men vie for her heart, they also represent the tug-of-war between old-school TV journalism and the encroaching "flash over substance" wave that would eventually consume almost all of broadcast news.

Granted, Brooks is treading on somewhat familiar ground here -- a case could be made that Jane, Aaron, and Tom are souped-up, R-rated versions of Mary, Murray, and Ted from MTM, with Robert Prosky's crusty bureau chief thrown in as a Lou Grant substitute -- but the script reads true with its wry observations about both human behavior and the mass media.

It's also eminently quotable; to this day, I find myself using lines like "Let's meet at that place near the thing where we went that time," or "I certainly hope you'll die soon." And Aaron's monologue about how Tom might be the devil comes in handy in any number of discussions about media superstars.

The performances are uniformly terrific, particularly the three leads. Hunter keeps Jane from being a caricatured type-A career woman, making the character's ferocious intelligence infectiously endearing. Taking the opposite tack, Hurt convincingly plays a charming idiot, a big departure from the brainy chatterboxes he had previously played in films like Altered States. And while Albert Brooks wrote and directed himself to great effect many times, this may be his most nuanced and vulnerable acting job.

The Criterion DVD -- which features the film's Blu-Ray debut -- comes loaded with great stuff, including a featurette about James L. Brooks, his commentary with director Richard Marks, and a doc about news producer Susan Zirinsky, who worked on the film and was a major influence on the Jane character. On the commentary, Brooks discusses that audiences were somewhat disappointed by the film's ending, so the DVD provides an alternate, unused one, as well as a terrific essay by film critic Carrie Rickey, who provides as intelligent a defense of the movie's somewhat controversial denouement as I've ever read.

(And speaking of the ending -- fans of the film will be glad to know that this edition finally fixes that one weird shot in the final minutes of the movie. Marks explains that the footage spent too long in the emulsion bath, which is why there was always that one bizarre close-up of Hunter that looked all sepia. Kudos to the folks at Criterion for repairing that singularly odd shot. The last names of Joan and John Cusack, however, remain misspelled in the closing credits.)

While Brooks's subsequent directorial efforts have been sporadic and often disappointing -- although I think I'll Do Anything ranks at least as an ambitious failure -- let's not forget that he helped bring The Simpsons into being, and that he produced the directorial debuts of Wes Anderson and Cameron Crowe.

And if nothing else, he made Broadcast News, which is no small feather in his cap.


  • Neil says:

    The irony is that Zirinksy, upon whom the Hunter character was based, turned out in real life to happily capitulate to ratings-driven TV. Her show, 48 Hours Mystery, is exploitation and sensationalism of the worst kind and masquerades as news/documentary. She oversaw the dismantling of a once great, cutting edge news/documentary program that had a huge influence, and its re-appearance--and re-titling--as pure tabloid junk without even the redeeming feature of some kind of ethical, social or legal message at the end to put everything in context. When Wm Hurt plays all hurt about being victimized over the ethical line because "they keep moving the sucker," wow--the real life Jayne singlehandedly carried it into another state. Even more ironically, it seems to have been done with pride. Jane appears to have been Brooks' wishful thinking at work, the network producer that never really was. Sadly.

  • milessilverberg says:

    Well that's depressing. I still love the movie though.