Broadcast News (1987) Written and Directed by James L. Brooks.  Holly Hunter, William Hurt, Albert Brooks (133 minutes) R

A hard-driving tv news producer (Holly Hunter) finds herself inexplicably attracted to the vacuous pretty boy (William Hurt) her network has just hired to anchor.  Her best friend (Albert Brooks) is a crack reporter and prose stylist, who carries a not very well disguised romantic torch.  Turning the romantic comedy formula inside out, Broadcast News layers moral integrity and the random unfairness of sexual attraction onto the perennial puzzle of balancing work life and personal life.  Brooks’ background was in journalism, which contributed to his inspired crafting of that other tv newsroom/family on The Mary Tyler Moore Show.  Made at the moment when the serious journalism of the evening newscast was fading into history and the news was just starting to be packaged as infotainment, the film asks if lowering standards is ever justified.

This film was made at the dawn of CNN, when, as Carrie Rickey says, “Broadcast News is both a classic comedy and an artifact of a lost culture.”  Because of today’s internet and fake news cycle, we can now see it’s about the complete collapse of the accepted system about how Americans ingest the news.  When this film was made, 50 million people every night watched the network evening news broadcasts.  Now, only about 5 million watch them, although they may have their preferred cable news outlet on as a background all day long.  In 1988, People Magazine asked network anchors to reflect on the film’s accuracy.  “CBS’ Mike Wallace, though he found Tom Grunick an implausible anchorman, considers the film “very realistic—the ambience, the egos, the pressures.” But ABC’s Sam Donaldson objects to the movie’s view that “good people are pushed out, bubbleheads get rewarded and management are all venal wimps.” Tom Brokaw added “People will not watch me or Peter Jennings or Dan Rather for our charm or our personality or our wink or our sweater unless they believe that they’re being well informed,” he says.”  Yet, infotainment was seeping into the network news bit by bit. The NBC News theme had just been switched to a dramatic flourish written by Raiders of the Lost Ark composer John Williams.

Is it the greatest movie ever made about journalism?  Some people would vote for Network, or All the Presidents’ Men, or even His Girl Friday.  There are so many films about a journalist going after “the story of a lifetime” perhaps because so many journalists end up writing screenplays.  It’s been just over 30 years since Broadcast News.  Now, journalism is under siege, called by some critics, “the enemy of the people.”  This film not only says the truth is important, but, for the people in pursuit of that truth, the process may trump friendship and love, but never integrity.

When James L. Brooks began researching this film, he had just grabbed a handful of Oscars for Terms of Endearment.  On the last day of the 1984 Democratic National Convention, Brooks asked Susan Zirinsky, a CBS News producer, if he could speak to her about her job. He quizzed her closely on her experience, even though she and her husband had been married just a few hours earlier, and she was open to discussing her experience as a woman in the tv news business.  Brooks insists that he used many interviews to craft his screenplay.  Another key influence was Joan Richman, a CBS news executive who produced Walter Cronkite’s coverage of Apollo 13, and the science coverage of the news, in general.

But, when Broadcast News came out three years later, Zirinsky attended the New York premiere of the film, on which she has a producer’s credit.  From the anonymity of the bathroom stall, she heard two colleagues dish, “Can you believe she gave us that bullshit that the movie had nothing to do with her?” Holly Hunter was wearing similar clothes, and cried the way Zirinsky cried.  Veteran newscaster Lesley Stahl told Zelinsky, “I don’t know if I would have told them that much.” (The Ringer).

Susan Zirinsky is still the executive producer on 48 Hours.  She’s won many Emmys, as well as the Edward R. Murrow Award for Excellence.  Her career began in 1972, she was in college, with a weekend job at CBS News.  Two weeks after she started the Watergate story broke, and she was hooked on reporting the news.  During filming of Broadcast News, she was Senior Producer at the CBS Evening News.  During the day, she covered Iran-Contra, and at night she wrote fake news stories for Brooks’ characters to read.  She thought of her job as technical advisor, but “the first day she met Holly Hunter, she peeked into a rehearsal and saw Hunter: They were the same height, with the same build, wearing the same kind of sweater and boots and belt. She remembers that while she was looking, Albert Brooks snuck up behind her and started whisper-singing the Twilight Zone theme song” (The Ringer).

Brooks included many in-jokes to be parsed by only the most rabid news junkie.  For example, Paul Moore, the president of the network, is played by Peter Hackes, who was a NBC correspondent for 30 years, until he was fired, “in the search for pretty men.” (The Ringer).

Brooks also credits production designer Polly Platt for the film’s success.  He thought she could have been a director herself, but dedicated herself to making men look good, particularly her first husband, Peter Bogdanovich.  Brooks was asked about her contributions to the film, “She loved film as much as anybody I’ve ever known. She loved it. She loved it romantically. She loved it practically. She loved it like mothers love their daughters. Like women friends love each other. She loved film. She never lost that crazy idealism, the kind of romanticism you bring to what you’re first starting. She never lost that, no matter what happened to her life. And everything happened to her life” (The Ringer).

Hunter’s fierce role (a breakout after her acclaim for the Coen Brothers Raising Arizona) is about a woman who is happy with the amount of control she has over her life.  She is perfectly comfortable living for the deadline.  She wants to succeed on her talents, not to succeed by flirting, but without denying her femininity.   Unlike last week’s film, 9-5, it’s not about changing the workplace, but a case study of the workaholics within them.

Ken Tucker calls James L Brooks one of the great humanitarians of the movies.  His background was newswriting at CBS news, during the last days of Edward R. Murrow, whose integrity was unblemished and whose confidence by the American public was complete.  “I was, and am, a news buff,” Brooks told me when we spoke over the phone about the 30-year anniversary of the film. “When I was lucky enough to get a job at CBS News, it was dream-life. I couldn’t believe I was in the newsroom.” First an usher and then a copywriter in the early 1960s, Brooks was thrilled with any task. “I actually got to bring coffee! It was fantastic.” (The Ringer).

Brooks had been the creator of The Mary Tyler Moore Show (and Rhoda and Lou Grant) which dealt with workplace family in the newsroom, as well.  One of the critical MTM episodes was a debate about whether the station would convert to “Happy Time News” a trend in which substance was set aside for human interest stories.  “Everything that Brooks had been doing up to that point was poured into Broadcast News” reported Ken Tucker.  He wanted Jane to be a person who had benefited from second wave feminism (unlike Mary Richards, who was a trailblazer).  She has a responsible job, able to exercise power, and people respect her. Her ambition is admired, not mocked.  And, she’s not looking to a romantic relationship for fulfillment.

William Hurt was described by People as “a man of dazzling intellect and recondite eloquence.”  His father was in the foreign service, and he was raised on the Island of Guam.  His parents divorced, and his mother married Henry Luce III the son of the founder of the Time Magazine empire.  He studied theology at Tufts, but then went to Julliard for theater.  He won an Oscar in 1985 for Kiss of the Spider Woman.  A  male “dumb blond” is allowed to have complexity a female character of that designation is not.  And he’s amazing! It’s not easy to play a character who is not terribly smart, but still attractive to someone who is. Brooks said without Hurt in this role, the film would not have been made.

Albert Brooks was born Albert Einstein, the son of Harry Einstein, a master of that that no longer extant job, dialect comedian.  The elder Einstein was on the radio as a character named Parkyakarkas. Albert went to Beverly Hills High School with Rob Reiner and Richard Dreyfuss, saying glibly that he became a comedian because he couldn’t get an acting job.  He made a number of satirical comedies that still play well today, Real Life, Lost in America and Mother.

Holly Hunter grew up in Georgia, on a cattle farm.  She majored in drama at Carnegie Mellon, and appeared on Broadway in the Pulitizer Prize winning Places in the Heart. She was in the replacement cast, but in the audience one night were Joel and Ethan Coen, who cast her as the rowdy cop in Raising Arizona (her Bronx roommate was Frances McDormand, who married Joel).  Brooks struggled to find exactly the right actress to play Jane, “Jessica Lange, Sigourney Weaver, Anjelica Huston—none of the famous actresses he’d interviewed had brought to life his image of “a new kind of romantic heroine, a girl who is sexy because of her brain” Hunter didn’t seem promising to him, and he was dismayed by her Georgia accent.  “But when she read a scene, magic happened,” director Brooks remembers. “I knew after five lines that she was the one.” (People).  Brooks changed the role to accommodate her.  “There is a prejudice against people from the south, that they are ignorant or lack education.  So it was so fantastic to play a Southerner who was intellectual and lightning fast and actually was the smartest person in the room” (EW).  Hunter spent six weeks in the CBS Washington DC bureau with Senior Producer Susan Zelinsky and wrote a 90 page analysis of her job.  Hunter’s career stretches nearly four decades, she was just nominated for another Oscar in The Big Sick (she won for The Piano in 1993). “People achieve their dreams in unorthodox ways, man.  I’m one of those people” (EW)

Joan Cusack who has brightened so many films without ever getting to play the lead (the Eve Arden of our day?) has her breakout role, here.  She gets the “car chase scene” a mad dash to the airtime tape player.  She’s been nominated for an Oscar twice, in 1988 for Working Girl and In and Out.

Holly Hunter’s Correspondents’ Dinner dress took as long as anything in the picture to find and decide on according to James Brooks.  The black and white Victor Costa dress had to be show stopping, but without the glitz and glitter of 80s evening wear.

Somebody found this dress in a thrift shop, obviously. I hope it had a big price tag! When you see it on screen, it seems like there may have been a piece added to the bottom of the skirt to make it floor length. Just love that 1980s cocktail wear!

Like Casablanca, it was filmed in sequence, and Brooks didn’t know how the picture would end.  He balances the characters so perfectly, that the viewer has the experience of changing their mind about how they want it to end.

When Brooks made his first film hit, Terms of Endearment, it was difficult to make the transition from tv to movies, tv was made by craftsmen, and films by artists.  His long time scorer, Hans Zimmer says, “He can get under our skin by making us laugh about ourselves.”

Broadcast News was released the same week as Moonstruck and Overboard.  Can you imagine a week today with three female centered comedies released at the same time?  Seen 30 years later, “ Broadcast News is a classic love triangle in a workplace setting with an accurate and hilarious — brutally so — look at the media hellscape as it was then and is now. In other words: It’s a masterpiece” (The Ringer).  It was nominated for seven Oscars, winning none.  The Last Emperor won for Best Picture.  “There are many recurrent themes in his work — women in television news, for one, and the lack of clear-cut “good” or “bad” people in any situation — but above all Brooks understands the pleasure of watching a smart person work hard to achieve what they want” (The Ringer).

Although the film was clearly based on Susan Zelinsky’s contributions to the network newsroom, there was a universality to Jane’s character, as well.  “Newsweek media critic Jonathan Alter is quoted as saying “practically every unmarried woman in her thirties with a decent job and an occasional anxiety attack thinks the movie’s about her.” (Me, reading that quote 30 years after the fact: “Fuck”) (The Ringer).  Now, more than ever, the appearance of a news anchor overrides their ability as a journalist.  TV pundits are given political power, both officially and unofficially.  That they are privileged white people in most cases is an unavoidable conclusion.  Tom Brokaw stated in 1988, “The movie tweaks us where we ought to be tweaked,” he admits, “but it vastly exaggerates the conflict between the serious and the lightweight” (People).  It is up to us all as consumers of the news to decide if that is still true.

“A character-driven tale of driven characters whose professional triangle trumps their romantic one, Broadcast News (1987) takes place after the fall of the Equal Rights Amendment and before the fall of the Berlin Wall—a time when gender wars and cold wars (rather than infotainment and political scandal) led the news” (Rickey).
“Brooks film is rare among American movies in that it’s both an involving romantic comedy and a trenchant satire thereof, playing off the themes and tropes of the genre while indulging in their pleasures, a tricky thing” (Ibid).

This film is psychic about the direction of tv news, but there is still a romanticism about the worth of journalism and journalists.  The great rom com about the fake news era is still in our future.


“Lines and Deadlines” by Carrie Rickey, by Haley Mlotek, “Holly Hunter” by Joe McGovern, Entertainment Weekly, July 7, 2017