Broadcast News is an odd sort of romantic comedy. While the story generally revolves around a standard love triangle in which the unwittingly desirable girl must fend off a handsome twit and a charmingly unappealing best friend, the romantic angle rarely amounts to more than an amusing B-story. Instead, the film spends most of its runtime dealing with questions of journalistic ethics in an evolving – or, depending on your perspective, deteriorating – media landscape. As the characters woo and pine for each other, the real love story here is about a waning era of journalistic excellence, with just enough sex and romance thrown in to keep things human. Following the major success of his first directorial effort, Terms of Endearment, James L. Brooks sets out to make a movie that has all the heart and unnatural wittiness of your run-of-the-mill rom-com, ambitiously framed by poignant social commentary. The result is a comedy classic that stands out in the sea of generic “boy meets girl” love stories.
The film opens in the mid-sixties, where we are introduced to the teenage versions of our eventual heroes. Jane Craig (Holly Hunter) is a precious young writer who spends her evenings glued to her typewriter. Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks) is the high school valedictorian, whose intelligence is only matched by his insatiable need to pat himself on the back. Tom Grunick (William Hurt) is a pretty boy with big plans that mostly involve getting by on his looks. Twenty years later, their personalities haven’t changed, but their jobs have. Jane is a news producer for the Washington, D.C. office of a major television network, where she works alongside Aaron, her fearless and snarky reporter. Together, the pair funnel their talents into a series of hard-hitting news segments on everything from the plight of veterans to the maneuvers of Sandinista rebels in Nicaragua. Through it all, Aaron has carried a secret torch for Jane, which might be even more secret if he wasn’t constantly flirting with her. Whether in the office or in the middle of a moonlit battlefield, he never misses an opportunity to lay on the charm. Except, of of course, when he is laying on the nebbish self-deprecation. “Wouldn’t this be a great world if insecurity and desperation made us more attractive?” he asks Jane early in the film. “If ‘needy’ were a turn-on?”
Oblivious or indifferent to Aaron’s affections, Jane acts like they are best friends and nothing more, calling him up to bemoan the sorry state of her own disastrous love life. “I’ve crossed a line some place,” she tells him. “I am beginning to repel people I am trying to seduce.” More specifically, after Jane gives a particularly disastrous talk railing against the trend of celebrity news anchors diluting the news with sensationalism and fluff pieces, Tom approaches her to say how impressed he was with the lecture, and she invites him back to her motel room. Mid-seduction, he reveals that he is exactly the sort of anchor she was talking about, a handsome face with just enough brains to recognize how incredibly dumb he is. Later, after leaving and spoiling the seduction entirely, he calls back to tell Jane that he’s been hired to work for her station.
When Tom asks Jane to teach him how to be a better reporter, she initially refuses. However, the pair begins developing a rapport when they are forced to work together on a live broadcast about a Libyan bombing. Tom proves to be the perfect puppet for an expert producer like Jane, parroting back facts and soundbites with charisma and poise, even when he doesn’t understand a single word coming through his earpiece. Soon, Jane begins to fall for him, both personally and professionally, despite Aaron’s constant reminders that Tom represents everything she hates.
Broadcast News can certainly seem a bit dated on modern viewings. Beyond the simple fact that the story hinges on a woman being constantly hit on by multiple men in the workplace, the main story they use to frame the question of journalistic purity seems a bit of an odd one. Tom puts together a piece about date rape, in which he interviews a teary-eyed victim. Both Jane and Aaron initially dismiss the piece as being a prime example of sensationalist non-news, an exploitative use of sex for cheap ratings. In the wake of the #MeToo era, when sharing and listening to similar stores has become a cornerstone of social media, their condescension seems a bit out of touch, and may be uncomfortable for some audiences. However, the film redeems itself when the plot ultimately turns on Tom’s shoddy handling of that story, and Jane winds up making the only sensible decision about which she should pick.
Verdict: 4 out of 5 stars.
Broadcast News is a fun mixture of romance, comedy, and drama. With its stellar cast, engaging story, and immensely quotable script, the film is both a strong entry in the romantic comedy genre and a prescient warning for the era of “fake news” and Fox News. It may not leave you feeling good about the state of the news media, which has changed depressingly little over the last thirty years, but it will warm your heart and make you laugh out loud.