Broadcast News delivers its thesis in a tossed-off joke. Fiery news producer Jane Craig (Holly Hunter) storms into the office of blankly handsome star anchor Tom Grunick (William Hurt)—the would-be boyfriend she seems to love and loathe in equal measure. Jane sets off on a classic rom-com tirade about all the ways he’s mistreated her, only to stop herself when she realizes Tom’s dad is in the room as well. In most romantic comedies, it would be the scene where the parent passes knowing approval of their child’s spirited, opposites-attract partner. Instead, Tom’s dad offers a hilariously straightforward assessment: “The way she just acted is not the way an affectionate person acts.”
Usually in a romantic comedy when things get tough, it’s a sign that the hero needs to fight harder. Run to the New Year’s Eve party. Crash the wedding. Ignore the command to “Snap out of it!” Miscommunication and bad timing aren’t red flags; they’re just hurdles to leap on the road to happily ever after. Broadcast News, however, is the rare rom-com to suggest that when things get hard, it might be a sign that they just aren’t meant to be.
It’s not the story writer/director James L. Brooks originally set out to tell with his 1987 film. He was just trying to put a new spin on the classic rom-com love triangle. “The thing that always happens with romantic triangles is that you always know she’s gonna go with guy A,” Brooks explained. “I mean, Ralph Bellamy built a career on being guy B. So I thought, what if I was open to her winding up with either guy?” Instead of writing toward a preordained ending, Brooks decided to let the story shape itself in real time, with Jane’s flirtations with Tom contrasted with her warm friendship with gifted reporter and embittered “Nice Guy” Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks). Brooks shot Broadcast News entirely in order—a rarity in filmmaking—so that he could see which guy actually deserved to get the girl by the end. Instead, the film led him to a different conclusion altogether. Rather than revamp the love triangle formula, Brooks blew it up entirely.
Brooks had the clout to pull off such a gusty move. He was one of the most influential TV creators of the 1970s, producing hits like The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Rhoda, and Taxi. For his first foray into film directing, Brooks delivered the seminal mother-daughter dramedy Terms Of Endearment, which not only won five of its 11 Oscar nominations, but also became the second highest grossing film of the year, behind only Return Of The Jedi. After that, Brooks had free rein to tackle pretty much anything he liked.
He decided to return to the newsroom setting he knew so well from The Mary Tyler Moore Show, as well as his own time as a copywriter for CBS News in the 1960s. Brooks could sense a cultural shift in the air, both with TV news as a medium and with career-focused women heading into the mid-1980s. With The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Brooks had tapped into the ethos of the 1970s women’s movement by centering the series on an independent, unmarried, career-focused woman. With Broadcast News, he was on the lookout for “a new kind of woman”—the kind who might have grown up idolizing Mary Richards and was now carving out her own career in the wake of second-wave feminism. A Hildy Johnson for the Reagan era.
There are any number of real-life women who can rightfully claim to have inspired Jane’s character, including Brooks’ frequent collaborator and co-producer Polly Platt. CBS News producer Susan Zirinsky was so influential that Brooks hired her as a technical advisor and associate producer on the film. And over the course of his lengthy research period, Brooks spoke to so many different women who mentioned crying at work that he wrote it into the script as a hilarious ritual for Jane. She periodically pencils in time to sob, not at any one thing in particular, but just to let out all the tension she holds in as she rushes to meet deadlines and handle last-minute crises. As Newsweek media critic Jonathan Alter summed it up, “Practically every unmarried woman in her thirties with a decent job and an occasional anxiety attack thinks the movie’s about her.”
Except for socially, Jane is a role model for every young woman in the newsroom. She runs the control room as part army general, part ballet choreographer. “I had no idea she was this good,” the president of the news division gushes after seeing her in action for the first time. Broadcast News understands the pleasure of watching people be good at their jobs. Jane and Aaron share a professional and personal shorthand that’s as inspiring as it is baffling. (“I’ll meet you at the place near the thing where we went that time.”) And Broadcast News smartly recognizes that there’s real skill to Tom’s on-camera ease too, even if his beauty-before-brains appeal represents a slow slipping of journalistic standards.
There are all sorts of ways in which Broadcast News feels eerily prescient about the future of journalism—from the rise of personality-driven cable news to the budget cuts and layoffs that have reshaped the industry over the past three-and-a-half decades. (The most telling moment of all is when Jack Nicholson’s star anchorman sympathizes with the difficulties of layoffs but stops short of sacrificing a little of his multi-million dollar salary to allow more people to keep their jobs.) And Brooks understands how much more those indignities sting for the people who define both their lives and their principles around their careers. The people who live and breathe journalism 24/7—so much so that they spend their free time debating hypothetical ethical dilemmas for fun.
For all of their professional accomplishments, Jane, Aaron, and Tom’s demanding careers have left them like emotionally stunted teenagers when it comes to their personal lives. Jane and Aaron’s proto-When Harry Met Sally dynamic is gingerly held together by their tacit agreement to never acknowledge the fact that he’s obviously in love with her. So long as they’re both single and unhappy, the tentative balance holds. Once Tom enters the picture, however, things begin to crumble.
Despite Tom’s dim wit and shaky journalistic ethics, Jane can’t help the fact that she desperately wants to jump his bones. But in many ways, she is to Tom what Aaron is to her. While Tom is awed and enamored by Jane’s brain and talent, he’s not quite attracted to her—at least not to the same degree that she is to him. “I like you as much as I can like anyone who thinks I’m an asshole,” Tom only half-jokingly clarifies after one of the many evenings in which their wires get crossed.
Thanks to Brooks’ willingness to go with his actors’ creative impulses, there’s a slippery, raw energy to all three of the film’s central performances. Broadcast News captures how nebulous human relationships can be—particularly ones that blur the lines between friendship, romance, and work. The film’s central trio are like magnets, constantly attracting and repelling each other in equal measure. Each time Jane and Tom try to come together, something pushes them apart. Each time Jane and Aaron try to cut off ties, something pulls them back together. None of the pieces of the love triangle quite fit, at least not in the way the people involved want them too.
Released the same weekend as Overboard and Moonstruck, Broadcast News was part of a wave of late 1980s romantic comedies that primed the pump for the ’90s renaissance that followed. (Moonstruck and Broadcast News racked up a total of 13 Oscar nominations between them.) But none of those films quite locked into the breezy, feel-good comfort that would define the genre in the next decade. Instead, Broadcast News leaves its edges raw. There’s a thorny complexity to the way it juxtaposes laugh-out-loud comedy with grueling emotional battles.
That includes not shying away from how cruel the otherwise lovable Aaron becomes in his worst moments. For all of his commitment to journalistic ethics, Aaron lacks personal integrity. He lashes out at Jane when she admits that she’s falling for Tom, couching his personal jealously in a philosophical monologue about how Tom is the devil. Tom, meanwhile, is refreshingly straightforward about his personal limitations but lacks professional integrity. Jane is horrified to discover that he conjured up tears on cue while shooting a piece on the newly identified phenomenon of date rape. Though none of Brooks’ characters are villains, they come close sometimes.
And that includes Jane, too. At one point, she sends a romantic rival on assignment to Alaska in order to clear a path for her and Tom. But we know before she does that there’s a limit as to how far she’ll compromise either her personal or professional integrity. When a higher-up scoffs, “It must be nice to always believe you know better, to always think you’re the smartest person in the room,” Jane answers with shockingly honest vulnerability, “No. It’s awful.” Brooks shot the scene 24 times because it was so important to him to get it just right.
In leaving the end of his film up in the air during production, Brooks accidentally stumbled upon a realization that too few romantic comedies are willing to acknowledge: Not every rom-com couple should actually end up together. When Brooks tried to have his actors improvise a more conventional happy ending, the results felt awkward and forced because the film had written itself into a corner where a reconciliation isn’t believable. The moral divides are too big to be swept away by “love conquers all.” Squaring those relationship circles would take a whole lot of time and effort, and for characters who are first and foremost married to their careers, there are always going to be other things they want to focus on instead.
Over 30 years later, Broadcast News’ unusual love triangle still feels singular in the rom-com canon. It’s even fitting that the film’s ending is a tad unsatisfactory, a bit unfinished. Instead of falling back on the familiar narrative beats of either a romantic comedy or a romantic tragedy, Brooks just aims for bittersweet honesty. For a film about the importance of truth in journalism, no other ending would fit.
Next time: Taye Diggs and Sanaa Lathan reunite in Brown Sugar.