Cleaning Out The DVR #29: Broadcast News (dir by James L. Brooks)

(For those following at home, Lisa is attempting to clean out her DVR by watching and reviewing 38 films by the end of this Friday.  Will she make it?  Keep following the site to find out!)


I’ll give you three chances to guess what the 1987 film Broadcast News is about.

Broadcast News takes place at the Washington bureau of a major network news operation.  (You can tell this film was made in the 80s in that nobody’s working for a blog and there’s no mention of Fox, MSNBC, or CNN.)  This is where a group of hard-working men and women do their best to make the national news anchor, Bill Rorish, look good.

Bill Rorish is played by Jack Nicholson and, even though he only has about five minutes of screen time (out of a 133 minute movie), he pretty much dominates the entire film.  Some of that is because he’s Jack Nicholson and he kicks ass.  All Jack has to do to dominate a scene is show up and arch an eyebrow.  But, beyond that, everyone in the movie is obsessed with impressing Bill Rorish.  Whenever a reporter and his producer get a story on the air, they obsessively watch to see if Bill smiles afterward.  Bill Rorish is the God they all hope to please and the film (as well as Nicholson’s performance) suggests that he barely even knows that they’re alive.  It’s telling that the only time Bill shows up in person (as opposed to appearing on a TV screen), it’s because a huge number of people at the Washington bureau are being laid off.

When Bill says that it’s a shame that budget cuts are leading to so many good newspeople being laid off, someone suggests that maybe Bill could help by taking a cut in his million-dollar salary.  Needless to say, Bill Rorish is not amused.

Broadcast News centers on three of the characters who work at the Washington Bureau.  First off, there’s Jane Craig (Holly Hunter), a producer.  Jane is a true believer in the mission and the importance of journalism.  Her ethics and her belief in what constitutes proper journalism are everything to her and, at times, she can get more than a little self-righteous about it.  (If Broadcast News were made today, Jane would spend the entire movie whining about how new media is destroying the country.)  At the same time, Jane is completely neurotic, a self-described “basket case” who, at one point, ends up sobbing in a hotel room as she prepares to go to sleep by herself.

Jane’s best friend is Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks), a reporter who wants to someday be an anchor.  Aaron is smart and funny (and he better be, seeing as how he’s being played by Albert Brooks) but he’s not telegenic and he’s almost as neurotic as Jane.  Like Jane, Aaron is all about journalistic ethics but there’s a defensiveness to Aaron.  Whenever Aaron complains about vapid news anchors, it’s obvious that he’s more jealous than outraged.

And then there’s Tom Grunick (William Hurt), who represents everything that Jane and Aaron claim to be against.  He’s handsome, he’s smooth, he’s charismatic, and he’s definitely not an intellectual.  He knows little about the specifics of current events.  However, he has great instincts.  He knows how to sell a story and he knows how to present himself on camera.  He’s also a surprisingly nice and sincere guy, which makes it all the more difficult for Aaron to justify his belief that “Tom is the devil.”

From the minute that Tom arrives at the Washington bureau, there’s a strong attraction between Tom and Jane.  (Jane even sends another reporter to Alaska after she finds out that Tom slept with her.)  Tom wants to be a better reporter.  Jane wants to be happy but fears compromising her ethics.  And Aaron … well, Aaron wants Jane.

Not surprisingly, considering that the film was made 29 years ago, there were some parts of Broadcast News that felt extremely dated.  A scene where Aaron complains about a story that Tom did on date rape feels especially uncomfortable when viewed today and both Jane and Aaron occasionally came across as being a bit too self-righteous.  In today’s media world, Tom’s sins really didn’t seem like that big of a deal.

But, for the most part, I enjoyed Broadcast News.  It was an intelligent film, one the featured people having actual conversations about actual ideas and, listening to them, I realized how rare, in both movies and real life, that actually is.  It’s a witty film, full of good performances.  While I hope I never become as self-righteous as Jane, I could still relate to her in her more neurotic moments.  And who wouldn’t want a best friend like Aaron?

And, for that matter, who wouldn’t want a lover like Tom?

(That’s something I never expected to write about a character played by William Hurt.)

And, of course, there’s this scene.  Poor Aaron!

Broadcast News was nominated for best picture of 1987.  However, it lost to The Last Emperor.


4 responses to “Cleaning Out The DVR #29: Broadcast News (dir by James L. Brooks)

  1. I almost always enjoy your reviews, but this review is very disappointing on more than level. The fact that you see the Jane Craig character’s impassioned and 100% immovable and completely valid defense of journalistic ethics as “self-righteous” is scary. Just because those set-in-stone rules of journalism have been badly beaten-up lately doesn’t make them any less important than they were when Network News was made.

    You said that; “In today’s media world, Tom’s sins really didn’t seem like that big of a deal.” I’m not sure which world you’re living in, but if the Tom Grunick character had been caught shedding “B-roll” fake tears in an interview on any legitimate TV news outlet today, he’d be out the door in a flash. Do the names Tom Brokaw and Brian Williams ring some bells? And what they did pales in comparison to the incident in the film.

    But I’m glad you took the time to review this great film. Hidden behind the romance and comedy are some very solid lessons in journalistic ethics, and how vital they are and hopefully, always will be. In a perfect world, watching Network News a few times would be required in every Journalism 101 classroom.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for commenting, even if you didn’t agree with my review. I always appreciate a dissenting opinion, as long as it’s well-stated and intelligently thought out. 🙂

      To be honest, watching Broadcast News was kind of like stepping into a time machine and going back to the past. It was interesting seeing a movie about the news that did not feature any comments about the Internet or cable news. Towards the end of the film (SPOILER) when Aaron resigned to protest the lay-offs, he really was taking a brave stand because it’s not like he could have just resigned and then started a blog or gotten a spot as an analyst on a talk show or something like that.

      All in all, I thought it was a good and interesting film.


      • I agree with you there! It is definitely like a time machine. And when you consider that the layoffs and reassignments also signaled yet another negative change in how their network was trading ethics for ratings, Aaron would have had to change his own journalistic morality if he stayed. A tough choice.

        Your mention of there not being an internet or cable news back then is very telling in any review of this film, since some of the non-broadcast (and therefore non-publically owned and regulated) cable and satellite news we have today is the direct result of the “negative changes” I mentioned. In other words, it’s the devil that Jane, Aaron and the others were fearing and fighting, personified by the Tom Grunick character; … the very charming, seemingly harmless talking head who didn’t mind telling “little lies.”

        (In the spirit of full disclosure, though it should be obvious by now, I find this film, and the message it contains, to be very important. I’m old enough to have lived and worked through those times, a good portion of it in or on the edges of broadcast media. So, yes, … I am one of those old guys, standing in the park, waving his cane and mumbling stuff about “Well, back in MY day…!” And so on.)

        Keep up the great work!


  2. Pingback: The Best Picture Race In Review: The 1980s | Through the Shattered Lens

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