Broadcast News

Director: James L. Brooks
Screenplay: James L. Brooks
Stars: William Hurt (Tom Grunick), Albert Brooks (Aaron Altman), Holly Hunter (Jane Craig), Robert Prosky (Ernie Merriman), Lois Chiles (Jennifer Mack), Joan Cusack (Blair Litton), Peter Hackes (Paul Moore), Christian Clemenson (Bobby), Jack Nicholson (Bill Rorich), Robert Katims (Martin Klein), Ed Wheeler (George Wein), Stephen Mendillo (Gerald Grunick), Kimber Shoop (Young Tom), Dwayne Markee (Young Aaron), Gennie James (Young Jane), Leo Burmester (Jane’s Dad)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1987
Country: U.S.
Broadcast News Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
Broadcast NewsViewed today, nearly 25 years after its initial theatrical release, James L. Brooks’s sophomore feature Broadcast News is as much an anthropological excursion into the bygone era of network news as it is a socially attuned dramedy about the twin tugs of romance and professional success. Given the massive--some might say seismic--shifts that have occurred in the media since the 1980s, there is little about the film’s depiction of the frantic, analog pulse of the network newsroom that is applicable to today’s fragmented digital mediascape; in 1987, the film was a detailed snapshot of what happens behind the news camera, and in 2011 it is a historical document of how things used to be. This actually works to make the film even more fascinating and compulsively watchable than it was 25 years ago: The human element is just as prescient as it was then, while the characters’ romantic/professional entanglements now have the added poignancy of the past tense.

Unlike most Hollywood films, which tend to focus on a singular protagonist or a couple, Brooks divides Broadcast News across three central characters whose various interactions, antagonisms, couplings, and uncouplings define both the dramatic arc of the story and the various facets of the workplace they call home. We are introduced to each of these characters as kids, which Brooks uses to humorously define their ultimately conflicting character traits. Tom Grunick (William Hurt) is a handsome and charming, but intellectually vacant news anchor who is being groomed for a top slot on the network news. That spot is coveted by Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks), who is extremely intelligent and driven, but lacks Tom’s interpersonal smoothness and external attractiveness (at one point he wonders aloud, in a perfectly tuned Brooksian moment, what the world would be like if neediness and desperation were attractive qualities). Caught between them is Jane Craig (Holly Hunter), a driven, perfectionist producer who laments the process by which hard news is being dumbed down into emotionally rewarding infotainment. When she delivers a keynote address at a news conference and is distressed to find that the audience responds more heartily to video of a massive domino set-up than her earnest discussion of news ethics, it is a funny and sad harbinger of the YouTube era.

Brooks’s dispersing of the film’s narrative focus across a trio of characters is a reflection of his previous work in television, where he co-created and produced such landmark series as The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Taxi, as is the film’s interweaving of the personal and the professional (the fact that Aaron is secretly in love with Jane may have as much to do with her professional ethics as it does with her personality or physical attractiveness, while Jane’s potential romance with Tom is constantly threatened by his intellectual inferiority and tendency toward the kind of mushy on-air sentiment that she loathes). Brooks’s best work in television tended to focus on “workplace comedies,” which were a reflection of the social and gender shifts in the late 1960s and early 1970s; the notion of the “traditional American family” was being refined and redefined, and Brooks’s television work was central to reminding us that family is not always what you’re born into, but where you’re accepted. That idea carries over beautifully into Broadcast News, especially as a follow-up to Brooks’s Oscar-winning feature debut Terms of Endearment (1983), which focused entirely on traditional familial dynamics.

Brooks had worked as a page in the CBS newsroom in the 1960s in the waning days of Edward R. Murrow and later as a documentary writer and director, and that firsthand knowledge gives Broadcast News an additional edge. While some of the scenarios feel slightly embellished, such as Joan Cusack’s memorably comic dash through the offices to get a videotape to the feed in time, the film is imbued overall with a sense of lived-in realism; the offices feel real, the people in the background feel legitimately busy, and there is every sense that all the drawers are packed with papers and supplies. Brooks consistently finds inventive ways of merging the professional and the personal, never better than in the sequence in which Jane directs Tom and feeds him lines through his earpiece during his first live national broadcast. The details of the performance both in front of and behind the camera give us a dizzying sense of behind-the-scenes presence, but more importantly we bear witness to an intimate connection between Tom and Jane, an exchange that he later describes as being better than sex.

One of the best films of its kind, Broadcast News solidified Brooks place in Hollywood, proving that Terms and its five Oscars were no fluke. Strangely, Brooks has had a hard time since then, directing a mere four films in the past 24 years, only one of which (1997’s As Good As It Gets, which nabbed Jack Nicholson a third Oscar) was any kind of critical or commercial success. Yet, despite his recent stumbles, the success of Broadcast News remains a testament to Brooks’s dexterity with complex human relationships and how those play out within a real world of professional obligations and responsibilities. The fact that the film hinges on a love triangle is an inherently dangerous proposition, and Brooks should be credited for going against the traditional grain and allowing it to play out in a fashion that is decidedly anti-Hollywood. The end of Broadcast News does not follow formula, but rather life, which is always messier than we would like it to be. The poignancy and humanism that Brooks injects into the film’s final moments have a powerful impact, not so much because they soften the realities of people growing apart, but because it reminds us that they can always come back together, sometimes as better people.

Broadcast News Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
Broadcast News is also available from The Criterion Collection on DVD.
Aspect Ratio1.85:1
AudioEnglish DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 surround
  • Audio commentary by writer/director James L. Brooks and editor Richard Marks
  • James L. Brooks: A Singular Voice documentary
  • Video interview with CBS news producer Susan Zirinsky
  • Original production featurette
  • Alternate ending and deleted scenes (with optional commentary by Brooks)
  • Theatrical trailer
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateJanuary 25, 2011

    Broadcast News has been languishing on home video for more than a decade now, with the only option between a dated DVD from 1999 with a transfer that was marred by zooming and overcropping. Criterion has come to the rescue with a fantastic new high-definition transfer done under the supervision of writer/director James L. Brooks and editor Richard Marks. The 4K transfer, which was given a 2K color correction and plenty of digital restoration, was made from the original 35mm camera negative, and it looks great. Colors are bright and clear, and detail is excellent, even in the darkest recesses of the newsroom. Skin tones are natural and the image is appropriately sharp without losing a filmlike appearance (grain is very fine, although the 20th Century Fox logo looks extremely grainy). The two-channel surround soundtrack, which sounds clean and clear in a lossless DTS-HD mix, was remastered at 24-bit from the original 35mm Dolby A magnetic tracks.
    In addition to overseeing the fine transfer, Brooks and Marks also contribute a first-rate screen-specific audio commentary in which they reflect on the film’s production and its various themes. Brooks does not appear directly in the rather hagiographic 36-minute documentary James L. Brooks: A Singular Voice, but there are plenty of others who were more than willing to go on-screen to sing his praises, including television critic Ken Tucker (who gets the most screen time), actresses Julie Kavner and Marilu Henner, and director Wes Anderson, whose debut Bottle Rocket (1994) was produced by Brooks. We also get a 17-minute video interview with CBS news producer Susan Zirinsky, who was the model for Holly Hunter’s character, and an original 8-minute production featurette. Fans of the film will likely be most jazzed by the inclusion of more than 20 minutes of deleted scenes, a good third of which comprise a completely excised subplot involving Tom and a source who helps his career, and an alternate ending that finds Tom and Jane ending up together in the backseat of a taxicab. The alternate ending has an audio introduction by Brooks, while all of the deleted scenes have optional commentary.

    Copyright ©2010 James Kendrick

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    Overall Rating: (4)

    James Kendrick

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