The three main characters in James L. Brooks’ wonderful Broadcast News each represent something larger than themselves: Holly Hunter as a driven network news producer, trying to square her personal and professional lives, updates the modern career woman of Brooks’ groundbreaking Mary Tyler Moore Show. And the two men wooing her are diametrically opposed: As Hunter’s heartsick best friend, Albert Brooks symbolizes the devalued virtue of substantive reporting, while William Hurt, a handsome young anchor-in-training, personifies a TV news industry about to be swallowed up by shallow, narcissistic news-readers. The men test Hunter’s conflicting standards in journalism and in love, but the small miracle of Broadcast News is that it never feels as schematic as it sounds. These are all prickly, complicated characters, and Brooks lets their relationships play out without forcing them to a predigested conclusion. The film caught a lot of flak for its bittersweet ending, but Brooks stays true to his leads’ varied destinies. (An alternate ending, including on the new Criterion DVD/Blu-ray, is a travesty both for going the Hollywood route and for allowing Hurt to unload a saucer-full of spittle.)
After a cutesy, unnecessary prologue that introduces the characters as children—the film’s only real misstep—Broadcast News settles into a witty, astute depiction of a TV news industry in decline. Tilting at windmills, Hunter fights against the creep toward infotainment, but she lacks an audience for her warnings at her network or at a convention for broadcast journalists. She’s committed to her producing job at the Washington bureau of a major network—and exceptionally skilled at it, too—but all the assurance she carries into the professional arena abandons her in the personal one. (Joan Cusack, as Hunter’s assistant, quips “Except for socially, you’re my role model.”) Her heart and head come into conflict when she’s seduced by Hurt against her better judgment, which in turn ruptures her friendship with Albert Brooks’ character, who sees Hurt as “the devil,” in part because he’s in love with Hunter himself.
Broadcast News gets the details of the newsroom right—one justly famous sequence follows the frenzied post-production of a story before it gets rushed to air—and appreciates the changing dynamics of a business pressed to sacrifice integrity for solvency. Though it’s clear where the film stands on the decline of broadcast journalism, Brooks stops short of vilifying Hurt, in spite of his vacancy and ethical lapses. And while Albert Brooks is the film’s moral center, he’s also petty and spiteful when things don’t go his way. The roles would be unthinkable without all three of these actors, but he stands out both because he gets all the best lines, and because his intelligence and wit don’t give him access to the things he desires. Early in the film, he asks Hunter “Wouldn’t this be a great world if insecurity and desperation made us more attractive? If ‘needy’ was a turn-on?” Set in an industry ruled by blown-dry narcissists, Broadcast News doesn’t entertain that fantasy in the slightest.
Key features: A generous features package includes the poor alternate ending (with a long setup by Brooks), deleted scenes, and a laid-back commentary where Brooks and editor Richard Marks dig into the production, especially Brooks’ relationship with his actors. Also, a disappointing new 35-minute documentary offers talking-head commentary on his work by friends and collaborators.