As Jane Craig, the professional exemplar and anxiety-ridden heroine of James L. Brooks’s Broadcast News, Holly Hunter brings a jittery, harried rhythm to its smooth, frequently too-tasteful mix of romantic-triangle comedy and “issue” film. A crack producer at a network’s Washington bureau, Jane bemoans the usurpation of hard journalism by infotainment on TV newscasts—in the late ‘80s, the Pleistocene era of cable nets, she ain’t seen nothin’ yet—and clears an auditorium of colleagues with a scolding lecture, save for rising anchorman Tom Grunick (William Hurt at his blondest), a hunky new co-worker who confesses his lack of journalistic chops and begs for pointers. Despite her initial protests that she isn’t a “remedial reporting” tutor, Jane finds herself pressured by both Tom’s golden-boy status with the news-division brass and her uneasily suppressed lust for him into becoming a mentor for the undereducated neophyte, who doesn’t know millions from billions in the Pentagon budget and draws resentful fire from the bureau’s ace reporter and Jane’s BFF, Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks, fitting the neurotic wiseass persona from his own movies almost seamlessly into the ensemble).
Jim Brooks, filming his first original screenplay after the Oscar-winning success of his directorial debut, Terms of Endearment, neatly sets up the tensions between the three characters in the first 20 minutes, and lets the rollercoaster dynamics of both newsroom ethics and amorous tactics play out for nearly another two hours. The cast is agreeably watchable, and the comic set pieces straddle the territory of war-story verisimilitude (the filmmaker wrote copy for CBS News in the ‘60s) and quality-sitcom staging (a la the Brooks-created, newsroom-set Mary Tyler Moore Show). A terrified associate producer (Joan Cusack) races to the control room, cassette of a just-edited evening-news story in hand, crashing into fixtures and diving under cabinet drawers; Jane, in her one semi-conscious flourish of pettiness, exiles her main rival (Lois Chiles) for Tom to Alaska on a long-term assignment; Aaron’s potentially career-saving weekend anchoring gig is drowned in a severe case of flop sweat; and a joke to the star newsman (Jack Nicholson in a witty cameo) that he reduce his salary to save staff jobs merits a silent, arctic glare. It’s all handsomely shot by Fassbinder-Scorsese vet Michael Ballhaus, scored with mildly vexing, piano-tinkling excess by Bill Conti, and truly anchored by Hunter’s “postfeminist” Jane, who for all her studio savvy, split-second instincts, and dogmatic concern for her profession’s decline, seems vulnerable rather than pitiable when collapsing into solitary crying jags or glumly telling a superior that it’s a curse to be the smartest person in the room.
Still, the film feels limited by a built-in naïveté, and it’s not merely the perspective of a quarter-century later that makes the championing of substantive TV journalism seem even more delusional than it did at the end of the Reagan administration. (Months before the release of Broadcast News, Lt. Col. Oliver North became a folk hero during the Iran-contra hearings because he looked so badass defying Congress in his crisp uniform—no matter that he’d used the Constitution for toilet paper.) When Jane and Aaron trek through the jungle with Nicaraguan rebels, it appears to be just romanticized you-are-there bravado, not the practice of incisive journalism any more than Tom’s on-camera crying while interviewing a date-rape victim. An 11th-hour revelation about the depth of Tom’s ambition seems to conclude Broadcast News with a clear-eyed warning to instinctively mistrust glamorous media messengers, but an utterly superfluous “Seven Years Later” epilogue puts a wimpier gloss on the love triangle while further diluting the candy-coated skepticism. The energy and charm of Brooks’s movie still carries the day, but he ultimately takes the advice of Hurt’s antihero to “start selling a little.”
The film's director-supervised visual transfer looks spiffy but not overly pristine, with grain retention noticeable from the opening 20th Century Fox logo. Cinematographer Michael Ballhaus's masterful work, from the deep blacks in the nocturnal shadows of nighttime Washington locations to the soft pastels and creamy tans and browns of the interiors, gets a fine showcase. The surround sound mix is vitally busy, with the buzz of chatter, tape sources, and general chaos in the office and control-room scenes an essential element in making the milieu of Broadcast News credible.
In the feature-length commentary track, writer-director James L. Brooks continually praises the depth and subtext given to their roles by his three lead actors, and how they helped provide the "most perfect creative environment of his career," and details the research and resources he drew on to ensure authenticity for depicting the TV-news world at a time when network staffs were being hit with their first wave of massive layoffs. He also describes how he cast Holly Hunter as Jane a mere two days before shooting started, and how his interviewing of a young "pretty boy" anchor of a CBS news magazine, who knew that he was an object of derision for his experienced colleagues, helped Brooks conceive of William Hurt's Tom Grunick as a sympathetic underdog. Editor Richard Marks adds observations on the benefits of Brooks's habits of shooting a lot of takes and generally in story sequence, and how he used long-shot takes of Jane's crying jags to make them more palatable.
The most intriguing supplements on the second disc are deleted scenes that include an entirely cut subplot of William Hurt's anchorman and a gay federal worker, clearly smitten with him, who becomes a steady source of scoops, and an alternate ending that addressed what Brooks describes as the "unfulfilling" outcome of the movie's romantic triangle. Hurt joins Holly Hunter in a cab in a mostly improvised confrontation-cum-reconciliation that would have followed the third-act rupture in the finished film. While Brooks remembers that at least one of the actors advocated its use, he "couldn't get there" in seeing it as a satisfactory metaphor for a rapprochement between the substance/performance tension in the characters' industry, or as a workable ending.
"A Singular Voice," a 35-minute survey of Brooks's career, puts particular emphasis on the thematic and stylistic links between the TV series he created and produced, such as The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Taxi, and The Simpsons, and his feature films, analyzed by critic Ken Tucker, actresses Julie Kavner and Marilu Henner, and Brooks protégé Wes Anderson. Also included is an interview with veteran CBS News producer Susan Zirinsky, one of the models for Hunter's character and the chief technical adviser on the film, and a 1987 Fox making-of featurette, along with extra footage of Brooks and the actors on the newsroom set. The collection's booklet essay by Carrie Rickey praises the film as Brooks's best and "a comedic, but also realistic, look at workaholics, male and female…not a fantasy of how females can change the workplace."
Everything you could want to know about creating an ambitious, well-crafted romantic comedy in a mass-media whirlwind setting is supplied in this two-disc package.