As TV gets dumber, so does its audience. In recent times, some media commentators have cited 1976 movie Network as not only a great film but sheer clairvoyance. Its central thrust – taking a rogue newsman’s on-air breakdown and turning his outcries into a concessionary viewpoint that re-enforces their stupefying values by becoming part of the same machine – is a handy stick with which to beat anyone who knows speaks out against the mediated status quo, if you’re a cynic.
Eleven years later, James L Brooks produced and directed something just as good with Broadcast News. Rather than a straight satire, it revolves around a love triangle: a lonely, depressive and gifted producer Jane Craig (played by Holly Hunter), charismatic but ignorant news anchor Tom Gruinick (William Hurt), and ambitious but awkward reporter Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks, pictured). When the best that 2009 can come up with is double-lobotomised crap like The Ugly Truth, it’s a masterclass in how to write work-based stories with a broader scope.
Altman’s unrequited love for his best friend, Craig, compounds his misery at being unrivalled at writing compelling reports, backed up with his encyclopaedic knowledge of global affairs, yet totally unsuited to any work in front of camera. Gruinick, meanwhile, steals Craig’s affections practically against her will: he’s a white knight who’s an empty suit of armour. Undereducated, promoted beyond his comfort zone as a sports news presenter but willing to learn, her ambivalence towards him exacerbates her already fragile mental state.
Gruinick’s rise to prominence is proportional to the network’s slide towards shallow, superficial reporting in the eyes of the other two. Brooks – now most famous as major player with The Simpsons – brings the best out of a strong script by giving the three leads what feels like equal screentime. It’s no irony that their jobs don’t afford them the same democracy to fight their respective personal battles. They’re all flawed and in it together. Craig’s harsh hard-headedness and loyalty to her friend makes her incapable or unwilling to understand the economic pressures on the station bosses, Altman’s unattainable dream of progressing to the role of anchor doesn’t rob him of his professionalism, so he continues to help Gruinick’s rise to the top out of sheer duty towards doing his job to the best of his considerable ability. Gruinick meanwhile, is so open and honest about his shortcomings that he never truly becomes the bogeyman seeking to replace education with entertainment. He does manage one perceived betrayal of Craig towards the end of the film, that sparks the dissolution of the group, but his endeavour is still strangely sincere. His values revolve around having the common touch and, as his work is rewarded and praised by his bosses and co-workers, his confidence grows as a result of what skills he’s learned from the other two. He’s not Lucifer and a cameo from Jack Nicholson as the network’s lead anchor, who carries himself with a polite forcefulness that commands respect, foreshadows what he may become.
With a denouement that’s something season five of The Wire could be proud of, the only thing that lets down Broadcast News is a final flash forward. The characters have all moved on, predictably in different directions, destroying any mystique about the paths they go down. Still, it avoids them descending into cliché and shows that there’s plenty of room for intellectual and populist presentation of the news, if you want it, which people do, which it while it still exists. So, perhaps what Broadcast News shows best of all is the cost of doing business.