I hope, when people look back at all the great comedy writers for the movies, they don’t forget James L. Brooks. Big names like Woody Allen, Neil Simon and Mel Brooks can rest easy, but Brooks always seemed to get lost in the cracks. Making it big during the comedy bombast of the 80s (Ghostbusters, Beverly Hills Cop), didn’t help either, because Brooks is a quieter, gentler humorist. His first few films were character-driven, slice-of-life works, back before “slice-of-life” meant sanitized dullness. On the contrary, Brooks’ characters crackle with freshness and vitality – they speak words that somehow ring true yet simultaneously could only be created at the pen of a screenwriter. And of those early works, Broadcast News is his hands-down masterpiece.
And that’s largely because this is firm footing for Brooks, who started out as a newsroom writer and later created the iconic sitcom The Mary Tyler Moore Show. You could even think of News as a more serious version of Mary: imagine if Mary Richards, WGM assistant producer, falls head over heels for Ted Baxter, airheaded news anchor, while at the same time newswriter Murray gets the hots for Mary. Now imagine that Ted is bit smarter, realizing he’s just a talking head, and wants to learn more about news production from Mary, and that Murray yearns to get more credit for his work, and dreams of stepping out from behind is desk and working in front of the camera for the change. That’s all pretty much Broadcast News, minus the laugh track.
Ok, so obviously that’s not all it is, but it does show how familiar Brooks is with these archetypes. Mary is now producer Jane Craig (Holly Hunter), a bundle of neuroses but astoundingly good at her job. That’s because she takes her job seriously – the same reason she resents new hire Tom Grunick (William Hurt), handsome news anchor who wants to learn more about the news stories that are flashed in front of him on the teleprompter. Yet she’s still insatiably attracted to him, just as much, say, as coworking writer/reporter Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks) is to her, but it’s not mutual – even though both have immense respect for each other professionally. But network news is having hard times these days, and this particular Washington bureau is about to face some major cutbacks. Bill Rorish, head honcho anchor (played by an unbilled Jack Nichlsolson) visits the groundlings one last time before the firings – and it’s not pretty. Nearly everyone gets the axe, although Jane manages to get promoted to bureau chief, Tom gets transferred to London and Aaron realizes he’ll be strung along on the same salary doing more work. The former two realize they need to test their relationship, though – it fails before they even get on the plane for a vacation. It all boils down to her discovery that he faked tears during a news piece he had done earlier, an act that roils her down to the core of her journalistic integrity; for him, it’s part of the biz. We flash ahead seven years: all three have gone their separate ways but maintain a friendship. And they all still work in broadcast news.
And as I’m writing this synopsis I keep hearing Brooks’ lines in my head – the man can write dialogue. From “I buried the lead” to “What do you do when you’ve achieved everything you’ve ever dreamed of?” to “Well, I certainly hope you'll die soon,” this is about as perfect a screenplay can get. Yet what distinguishes News from so many other works of its ilk, and indeed from some of Brooks’ other, less successful efforts, is that the dialogue is anchored down. If Brooks has any flaw, it’s that sometimes his dialogue needs to be rooted in hard story, in structure; otherwise we get too glib and cutesy, so his characters just wind up trading “great lines” with one another until they just float off the screen. That doesn’t happen in News: just as soon as an interpersonal scene gets to be too much, we cut to a activity-based scene of intense news gathering and reporting – the nuts and bolts of these peoples’ lives.
I’ll always remember moments from this film, which is exactly the way I prefer to remember films. I’ll remember the lines, sure, but I’ll remember the pregnant pauses too, and the reactions, and the reactions to those, and the follow-ups. This is all of course a testament to Brooks’ ability to direct those lines that he crafted so skillfully. And there’s one particular skill he as in this regard that I’d like to mention: his observance that we’re all just a sentence away from hurting someone we love. In several scenes here we have moments where someone says just the wrong thing, often carelessly and it puts the conversation to a dead halt (Jane offends Tom this way in their first scene together, and Tom tosses off a “joke” insult that wounds Jane in one of their last). This happens all the time to us, doesn’t it, and yet few writers have the skill to tackle such emotional complexity, and sensitivity, and put it on the screen. Perhaps that’s why Brooks is so underappreciated – he’s holding up a mirror to us, one that lets us see our insides, and it’s uncomfortable.
And then there’s the ending, as heartbreaking as you’d come to expect from a Broks film, but also realistic. We have two potential soulmates, ostensibly perfect for one another barring one thing: their journalistic mantra. Ordinarily, perhaps, such is an obstacle easily overcome. But Brooks depicts is protagonists as job-consumed to the core: an act as simple as crying after the fact is a dealbreaker, or, heartbreaker in this case. And so the ending is inevitable, paving the way for an even sadder epilogue, straight out of The Way We Were. Sad, sure, but just like Terms of Endearment’s coda, a “life-goes-on” note of encouragement too.
I worked in news production myself, and I can testify that most of this stuff is accurate, particularly the persona of dogged news producer, striving to get that perfect story to air, whatever the cost (usually everyone’s blood pressure). I myself was on the technical side, so we were always at loggerheads with this type, mostly because we got the blame if a tape was loaded late. That scene near the beginning of Hunter editing the homecoming story down to the second is pitch-perfect, even if it does seem unlikely an news agency would have an edit bay that far away from the control room. And yes, every network has that monolithic high-profile anchor, making millions a year, and usually the one around whom everyone else genuflects, regardless of age, gender or seniority.
The performances go without saying – Brooks knows how to cast too, and that’s half the job. But I will say that Albert Brooks is particularly adept at Brookspeak; the dialogue fits him like a glove. That’s partially because Albert is a writer too, and his style isn’t that far removed from James’s.
This is a film, I think, that most people only pay lip service too, without actually seeing and enjoying. That’s how I was until I saw it again last week. And now I can appreciate it more than I ever did. I mean, dammit this is good writing. It was nominated for Best Screenplay, and would’ve surely won were it not for the fact that it was up against John Patrick Shanley’s Moonstruck, also one of the best scripts of the 80s. When it rains it pours.
Again, the my star system only goes up to four, and so I must be content with: