"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!"
It's safe to say that stress-junkie Jane Craig (Holly Hunter) isn't a fan of Werner Herzog.
Jane, a TV news producer in Washington, D.C., styles herself as a defender of old-school journalistic values, fighting for substance over style and objectivity above all. On location in Nicaragua for an embedded report about the Contras, she freaks out when a cameraman asks a soldier to put on a pair of shoes so he can film it: "Just do whatever you were going to do." (Which involves putting on a pair of shoes.) Later, she faces a near total meltdown when she learns that fellow reporter Tom Grunick (William Hurt) staged a tearful reaction shot in an emotional interview that proved to be a major hit.
Herzog, of course, would find her fetishization of (allegedly) unmanipulated actuality footage a misguided attempt to elevate facts over truth, the "accountant's" superficial report of events rather than the artist's deeper, "ecstatic" interpretation (and manipulation) of it. Jane would no doubt respond by calling him an asshole. Scholars might also point out that she's upholding a standard that never existed, not even in the "good old days," but she would probably offer a similar rejoinder.
What matters most to Jane, however, is the story, the story that she tells herself to make sense of a life split between workplace success and personal failures. In an industry shifting towards glibness and glitz, she is important because she is the last bastion of integrity. Except not quite the last. Her friend and co-worker Aaron (Albert Brooks), a brilliant writer and reporter, fights the good fight alongside her. Aaron tells himself a similar story. Always too-smart for his own good (as we see in the childhood scenes that introduce the film) he knows he would be a great news anchor if only the industry (and audiences) valued brains and guts instead of perfect posture and good looks. He shouldn't hold his breath. But he knows that. Most of the time.
As the smartest people in the room, Jane and Aaron have formed a mutual self-appreciation society that gets them through the night. It's easier to suffer fools together. But their lives are complicated when the handsome, affable Tom is brought on board to be groomed as the new anchor. Definitely not the smartest person in the room, Tom's personal story is nonetheless the one that hews closest to reality. He admits to Jane upfront that "Half the time I don't get half the news that I'm talking about." He's there for his smile, and he knows it. Jane despises everything that he stands for, so quite naturally falls in love with him.
This is a classic setup for a stereotypical love triangle, but in "Broadcast News" (1987), writer/director James L. Brooks provides a nuanced perspective on all three of his career-oriented protagonists. Jane is a bundle of contradictions, supremely confident in her journalistic acumen but vulnerable to rejection in all facets of her life. Aaron (like just about any Albert Brooks character) can sound like a condescending prick one second then follow it up with a sensitive, self-deprecating observation. Tom may be a likeable airhead who serves as a stand-in for the shallowness of an ethically bankrupt industry (Aaron: "Tom, while being a very nice guy, is the devil.") but when he finally springs into action during a news crisis, we discover something shocking: He's great at his job. And he really wants to learn as much as he can… just as long as it doesn't take TOO much effort. Tom, sincere as he may be, is used to having things handed to him, and his idea of "hard work" would be a vacation for Jane and Aaron. But he really looks good in a suit.
Brooks' satiric look at the news industry is rather simplistic with its general kvetching about a lowering of standards, something Brooks had already written cogently about in "The Mary Tyler Moore show" a decade before (Tom is the sexier, suaver Ted Baxter). And Jane's view of the business seems quaint in its naïveté. How could she possibly be shocked to discover that Tom re-shot his teary-eyed closeup? It would never have occurred to me to think that it wasn't staged. I guess she needs to stick to her story, because otherwise life stops making sense real fast.
The increasingly intricate shading of each character propels the story and the sharp, endlessly quotable writing ("I'll meet you at that place near the thing where we went that time") keeps the film fresh as Tom, Aaron and Jane carom off each other at ever-more oblique angles. I hate you, I love you, I hate loving you, I wanna be friends, and I'm still in love with you, and you're an asshole. "Broadcast News" does not play out in a predictable fashion, no doubt due in part to Brooks' decision to shoot the film in continuity and without a pre-determined ending. Hunter, Albert Brooks and Hurt didn't know how things would turn out any more than Jane, Aaron and Tom did, and all three actors were called on to do significant improvisation. Fortunately, they were all up to the task, particularly Hunter who had her breakout year in 1987 with both this film and "Raising Arizona."
I wonder if it would be possible to make a film like this today? Is there anyone left who still thinks television news isn't primarily a ratings grab? Whatever the case, a new "Broadcast News" would probably have to spend most of its screen time reminding viewers that there's still such a thing as broadcast news.
The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. This 1080p transfer is near the top end of Criterion's high-def range which is pretty high indeed. The colors are very sharp, and image detail is very rich, something particularly noticeable in the close-ups. This is a film about faces (not just talking heads on the boob tube) and Albert Brooks, Hunter and Hurt all look marvelous in high-def. Albert Brooks' expressive eyes and crinkly forehead especially so. James Brooks and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus use a lot of shallow focus and the effect in HD is an even sharper contrast between foreground (which really pops out) and background (whose blurriness is even more noticeable.)
The film is presented with a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 sound track. The sound design isn't too complicated, but this restored audio track is perfectly clean with clearly-mixed dialogue throughout. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.
The commentary track features James L. Brooks and editor Richard Marx and was recorded in 2010 for the Criterion release. I only sampled 15 minutes, but the two men are obviously good friends and play well off each other while fondly remembering the film.
"James L. Brooks: A Singular Voice" (2010, 36 min.) is a new documentary that collects interviews with Brooks' collaborators including composer Hans Zimmer, critic Ken Tucker and actresses Marilu Henner and Julie Kavner. Brooks' extensive television career ("The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "Rhoda," "The Simpsons" just to name a few) is covered along with his film work. Naturally, the coverage is superficial due to the scope of his career and the running length, but this is a very strong offering which offers a new appreciation of a popular director who isn't necessarily given the auteurist treatment by critics.
CBS news producer Susan Zirinsky, one of the real-life inspirations for Holly Hunter's character, talks about her involvement with the project. 17 minutes, recorded in 2010 for Criterion.
Of the most interest to fans of the film is the Alternate Ending. As mentioned above, Brooks shot the film in continuity and didn't settle on an ending until late in the game. This cab ride with Jane and Tom was one possible ending that didn't get used. Brooks provides an audio introduction to the scene in which he tells a very interesting story about the ways in which his original plans for the scene were ruined. 10 minutes, more than half of which is Brooks' audio intro.
The disc also includes 19 minutes of Deleted Scenes with commentary by James Brooks.
Finally, the disc offers a silly but amusing promotional featurette (8 min.) from 20th Century Fox, as well as 18 minutes worth of interviews and onset footage including both James L. and Albert Brooks and Holly Hunter.
A Theatrical Trailer rounds out the extras.
The 16-page insert booklet features an essay by Philadelphia Inquirer critic Carrie Rickey.
"Broadcast News" was nominated for seven Academy Awards (it got shutout by the juggernaut "The Last Emperor") and I wonder if it was a joke keeping with the film's theme that Albert Brooks was submitted as a supporting actor to William Hurt's lead actor. Having already won the Best Picture Oscar with his first film ("Terms of Endearment") it looked like James L. Brooks had made one of the greatest transitions from small to big screen in industry history. Perhaps he had, but he has only directed four films in the subsequent 23 years and, with all due respect to "As Good as It Gets" fans, the less said about them the better.
He has been a prolific producer, however, helping to develop and launch "The Simpsons" as well as producing films such as Penny Marshall's "Big" and Wes Anderson's feature debut "Bottle Rocket."
The Criterion release of "Broadcast News" has an impressive array of extras and a superb high-def transfer. I don't think I would upgrade solely to get the extras, though the Alternate Ending will be very tempting to devotees, but combined with the superb picture quality it's probably worth the switch from your old SD.