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'Broadcast News'

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 25, 1987

 


Director:
James L. Brooks
Cast:
William Hurt;
Albert Brooks;
Holly Hunter;
Jack Nicholson;
Robert Prosky;
Joan Cusack
R
Under 17 restricted


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In "Broadcast News," writer-producer-director James L. Brooks takes us inside what looks to be the most exciting world ever. The film is about the private lives of the men and women in front of and behind the cameras at a network news bureau in Washington, and it gives us the exhilarating feeling that in getting to peek backstage, we're being let in on big secrets, that the tricks of the trade are being revealed.

As it turns out, big secrets aren't revealed in "Broadcast News," but the film is so ingratiatingly high-spirited, and the performances so full of sass and vigor, that in the long run it doesn't really matter much.

The movie never comes close to being a great, penetrating work about television news. It's not a scathing satire like "Network," nor is it to broadcast journalism what "All the President's Men" was to print. But Brooks' ambitions for his second film -- his first was "Terms of Endearment" -- appear to have been far less exalted. Brooks, who used to work for CBS News before moving on to such breakthrough shows as "Mary Tyler Moore" and "Taxi," has crafted a teasing, affectionately critical satire of his former profession. In the process, he's created a spunky romantic comedy with some of the snappiest lines heard onscreen in a long while.

The movie's basic geometry is a romantic triangle formed by the three stars: Tom (William Hurt), Aaron (Albert Brooks) and Jane (Holly Hunter). Jane is a bantam-size producer from Atlanta who zips through the day as if she had pure caffeine pumping through her veins. Jane's brain has only two speeds: fast and extremely fast. She's always in gear, her taut little body in motion.

Jane seems to thrive on pressure. With air time bearing down on her, she gets an idea for a piece on a returning mercenary that Aaron has prepared for that night's show. It's a small detail -- a Norman Rockwell picture that just flashed into her mind at the last minute -- but trying to get it in causes a panic in the editing room. This is perhaps the movie's funniest moment. As the seconds tick down, the people crowding in front of the monitors begin to groan and hyperventilate -- it's as if they were all in simultaneous labor -- and as the assistant director (Joan Cusack) sprints into the control booth with the finished tape at the last possible second, the comedy escalates to a giddy climax.

But Brooks is making more than a joke here. He's showing us what a pure oxygen rush it is to operate under circumstances like these; to be young and working side by side with brainy, gifted, dedicated, workaholic people in a top-of-the-line shop. This is the glamor of network news, as Brooks presents it, and the behind-the-scenes material that he shows us here is enormously rich and enthralling.

The relationships between the characters in the film are knotty, though, the way they can get between coworkers. Jane and Aaron somehow seem like more than friends. They're on the phone together constantly, morning and night, telling each other jokes, whining or just checking in. They're so inside each other's head that each seems almost to know what the other will say before he says it. But the two aren't lovers (though Aaron is head-over-heels in love with Jane). And maybe they're not because they're too much alike. Or maybe just because.

This part of the movie is seductive too; it's the director's loving nod to friendship. Both Brooks and Hunter are a joy to watch. Hunter's triumph is that she doesn't try to round off Jane's rough edges. She's more than feisty; she's sort of a pain, and she's not above using people, in little ways mostly -- like picking a reporter (Lois Chiles) who's her rival for Tom to cover a trial in Alaska -- to advance her own agenda.

As Aaron, Brooks the actor makes Brooks the writer sound like a genius. Albert Brooks claims not to have rewritten his lines, but he gives them such a personal turn that they all sound as if they've sprung straight from his loopy brain. And he doesn't even need great lines to be great. When he sits on his sofa, singing and mixing vodka and fingerfuls of frozen orange juice while trying not to watch Tom anchor a special report he feels he should have anchored, he creates a classic portrait of lonely-guy angst.

Aside from work, the main thing that Jane and Aaron have in common is smart person's disease, and their symptoms -- insecurity, neurosis, moral and intellectual superiority -- provide them with plenty to talk about. And this provides Albert Brooks with the raw material for his comedy, too. At one point, Aaron whines into the phone, "Wouldn't it be great if we lived in a world where insecurity and desperation made us more attractive?" But the twist is that in this unstable, high-tension world they do; they're enormously attractive, these neurotic dynamos.

Tom is another story altogether. Tom's not smart; he's not well trained; and he's not particularly hard-working. But Tom is a star -- or, at least at the beginning of the movie, a star in the making. The contrast that Brooks sets up is between Aaron, a reporter who understands world events and writes beautiful copy, and Tom, who has a clean, square jaw and can read copy off a TelePrompTer.

Tom is by far the most complex character in the movie, but he's not the most engaging. Hurt is able to make Tom's self-effacing style disarmingly appealing, but dullness is built into Brooks' conception of Tom; he's supposed to be less interesting, less vivacious, than the other two leads, and this presents an obstacle that Hurt never really overcomes. When Hurt speaks he enunciates his words slowly and softly, as if he were speaking to the animals at a petting zoo; he wants his words to soothe the people he's talking to, and to make them think he's being intimate with them. What he's doing really is working on his presentation of himself. He's "acting" intimate or, if he's on the air, masculine, confident and credible.

This is why the role of Tom is such a perfect fit for Hurt: He looks like the sort of guy who would always be in his dressing room weighing ethical questions against career ambitions and coming out on the career side every time. But the key to Tom is that he would feel bad about it. And then tell you what he had done and how guilty he feels.

This is Tom's way of getting off the hook, and Brooks isn't above using it too in order to make Tom more appealing. Still, in Brooks' vision of things, Tom is clearly "the devil" in the piece because, as Aaron puts it, he will "bit by bit lower standards." In the film, his primary crime is that he "acted" a tearful reaction shot in a piece he did on date rape. But Brooks paints the issues too broadly in his condemnation of Tom. There are other villains in the piece -- like the president of the News Division (Peter Hackes), who, along with his bosses, is responsible for the wholesale cutbacks in staff and budget that are far more of a threat to the quality of the coverage than blow-dried anchors. But Brooks keeps them in the background. He wants Tom to carry too much of the blame.

James Brooks has a tricky kind of talent. He's smart about little things -- about the jokey shorthand that high-strung, competitive people use in place of conversation, about the way sex and ambition get scrambled up at the work place, about how questions of professional ethics are worked out under everyday circumstances, when the heat's on and split-second decisions have to be made.

But when you get right down to it, his insights about television news coverage -- that it's shallow, that the line between journalism and show biz has become almost nonexistent -- aren't particularly original observations. Brooks is excellent at taking us inside the world of television, but not terribly good at analyzing it. He has a facile, too-pat approach to dealing with issues; there's still too much of the sitcom mentality at work.

When his characters are whipping out their lines, though, the movie is brisk and immensely pleasurable. And there are moments -- such as the brief walk-ons that Jack Nicholson makes as a Dan Ratherish anchor, or the sidewinder touch that the deliciously gawky Cusack gives to her line readings -- that cause you to rock in your chair with delight. The movie is ugly to look at (even with Michael Ballhaus behind the camera) and some of the staging is so out of whack that you can't believe your eyes.

Still, as an entertainer, Brooks delivers. It's as a thinker that he falters. If you had to single out the character the director most resembles, it wouldn't be the overachieving Jane or the whiplash-smart Aaron -- it would be Tom.

Broadcast News, at area theaters, is rated R. It contains adult situations and some profanity.

   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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