Why They Don’t Make Movies Like ‘Broadcast News’ Anymore
By Todd Hill
Way back in 1986, a year before the James L. Brooks film “Broadcast News” was released, I had a crush on a co-worker who was the spitting image, both physically and emotionally, of Jane Craig, the spiky character portrayed so memorably by Holly Hunter in the movie.
I never acted on the crush, a mistake I likely wouldn’t make today, as I’ve long since come to the conclusion that I’m most attracted to strong women like Jane. Any forays I made would likely have gotten nowhere, given that like Jane Craig, her doppelganger was married to her career. This is also a big reason why “Broadcast News,” which is at its heart a romantic comedy, works as well as it does.
Anyone beholden to the view that our culture has only moved forward and improved over time would almost certainly be disabused of that notion after viewing “Broadcast News,” depending at least in part on what they value in this culture. I’m not necessarily talking about the quality of motion pictures; Brooks in fact would be the first person to tell you that movies are doing just fine, while in the same breath acknowledging that “Broadcast News” couldn’t be made today.
For starters, the setting would have to change. “Broadcast News,” concerned with the work and personal relationships of journalists at the Washington news bureau of a major television network, was released when 71 percent of Americans watched the evening news on either ABC, CBS or NBC. In 2017 that percentage had dropped to 26 percent, which frankly seems high. I’m not automatically labeling this a tragedy — although as a former journalist I’m not going to applaud it — but sloshing through fake news on social media hardly feels like an improvement.
“Broadcast News” was released amidst arguably the strongest era for romantic comedies in Hollywood history. Also out in 1987 was “Moonstruck,” which beat out “Broadcast News” for the original screenplay Oscar. Two years later, “Say Anything” and “When Harry Met Sally” arrived in theaters, followed by the monolithic hit “Pretty Woman” in 1990.
Decades later, the once dependable rom-com is essentially dead as a workable film genre. Remarkably, filmmakers today can’t seem to get past the mindset that a woman’s only life choice is between a fulfilling love life and holding down a responsible job — or, for that matter, that that’s not even a valid choice to begin with. A film, like “Broadcast News,” in which a woman doesn’t land her man in the end is not going to get made right now.
How then to explain the success, on every level, of “Broadcast News,” 32 years ago, when we were presumably less enlightened about gender roles?
James L. Brooks deserves the lion’s share of the credit, which shouldn’t come as a surprise. His resume before “Broadcast News,” which likely represents his career peak, speaks volumes. After an early foray into journalism at CBS News, Brooks dived into the entertainment side of television, creating the landmark series “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “Taxi,” while serving as creative consultant or writer for scores of other shows, including “The Simpsons.”
His first dive into directing feature films was 1983’s “Terms of Endearment,” which earned Brooks Oscars for directing, adapted screenplay and Best Picture. But “Broadcast News,” which four years later was entirely Brooks’ creation, feels even more fully realized today. In a word, it was prescient.
The film’s ensemble cast is headlined by three broadcast journalists — Tom Grunick (William Hurt), a good-looking, successful but uneducated news anchor; Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks), a highly educated but professionally frustrated reporter; and Jane Craig (Holly Hunter), a professionally intense but socially awkward producer.
The three characters constitute a romantic triangle, but unlike those we’re familiar with from countless, forgettable rom-coms. Jane and Aaron are best friends, although Aaron fervently wishes they were more. Tom is a new arrival at the Washington bureau, an interloper, and immediately there’s sexual chemistry between him and Jane. But this is significantly complicated by two things, which essentially merge into one big barrier to their conjugal contentment. To a certain extent, Tom works for Jane, but more importantly, she can’t bring herself to respect him professionally.
Exhibit A in how “Broadcast News” is either dated or prophetic today — What ultimately keeps Tom and Jane apart is the revelation that he faked crying during an interview with a date-rape victim. “You can get fired for things like that!” Jane yells at him. “I got promoted for things like that!” Tom responds. Kudos to Jane for winning the battle, but the Toms of the journalistic world have long since won that war.
Ultimately, Jane, Aaron and Tom end the film where they began, relationship-wise — alone. Not surprisingly, this has never sat particularly well with audiences that expect a traditional rom-com ending, but it’s the only way this movie could conclude. These are three people who are married to their work; it’s their defining characteristic. While work is pretty much the only place where they’re likely to make a romantic connection — another reason why “Broadcast News” couldn’t be made today in this #MeToo era — their devotion to all-consuming careers ultimately renders romance unworkable.
As it is, the film ends with an unsatisfying coda that feels tacked on. We catch up with the trio seven years later, when their hairstyles have changed and their work descriptions are different, but their interpersonal dynamics haven’t really shifted in any meaningful way. This is a corner, however, that Brooks couldn’t help painting himself into.
Leaving us with a final image of Jane alone in the back of a cab at the airport, while a natural place to end the movie, would’ve left an anti-feminist impression at odds with everything we’ve come to know about the character.
In fact, Brooks shot an alternate ending in which Tom, rather than boarding a plane to the Caribbean for what was supposed to be their trip together, joins Jane in the cab, where he passionately voices his love for her. It’s an exceptionally well-acted scene, but would’ve been impossible to use, given that the hit-and-miss relationship between Tom and Jane we’ve seen has been nowhere this intense.
Hurt, Albert Brooks and especially Hunter are at the top of their game in “Broadcast News.” They’re pure pleasures to watch, their performances helped immeasurably by sterling writing courtesy of James L. Brooks. But ultimately, this motion picture now saddens me. It didn’t used to.
The film’s third act is preoccupied with mass layoffs in the Washington bureau of this fictional TV network, the kind of purging in which major electronic media companies have always engaged, even back in 1987. But today, after what all of journalism has gone through over the past decade, becoming a faint shadow of what it once was, these scenes hit home in a way they hadn’t before.
More so than in many professions, journalists seem genetically predisposed to congratulate each other for jobs well done. The support network in the news business is strong, or at least it used to be. That’s largely gone now, especially in local journalism, which has been hit hardest by endless cutbacks as the Internet has usurped everything else. So many reporters, photographers and editors are just gone.
“These people — it’s all so awful,” Jane says to Tom on the day the firings first percolate through the newsroom. “It just hurts physically, doesn’t it? Like something’s wrong with your bones, like your bones are shifting inside your body.”
Tom, entirely in character, responds with, “Maybe I haven’t been here long enough.”
Is it any wonder Tom doesn’t end up with Jane? Or that he has such a promising journalism career ahead of him?