Sunday, August 20, 2017

Ex Machina

SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.

The title of this 2014 sci-fi movie comes from an ancient theater term. “Deus ex machina” referred to an actor playing a god in a box who was lowered from the upper part of the scenery which represented the heavens. The “god” would then resolve conflicts presented in the story. It is now considered to be a crutch, a contrivance, used by a writer to tie things up that should naturally play out from the basic ingredients in the narrative.
In this film, the term takes on added significance, because it deals with a hybrid consisting of organic form and mechanized computing. A new life entity, Artificial Intelligence, is created out of (“ex”) technological machinery, and the “god” who creates, or facilitates its birth, is a human scientist. The person the audience identifies with as he discovers this new invention is Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson). He works, appropriately, for a computer search engine company. The modern connection between people and computers is on display in the opening scene as we see many employees jacked into their electronic equipment. We get a shot from the computer’s point of view, from its camera, not from a human’s but from a machine’s perspective, as it scans Caleb. The implication here is that humans are being reduced to digital images. Caleb wins a lottery to spend time with the genius developer of the company, Blue Book (whose name, we are told later, comes from philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s book. This work is a collection of lectures).

A helicopter airlifts Caleb to the residence of his boss, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). The place is so sprawling and remote, that Caleb doesn’t even realize it when they have been flying over the estate for quite a while. The helicopter is prohibited from landing in sight of Nathan’s building. Nathan attributes this isolation to the need for security. But, it also indicates how psychologically removed he is from the human race. It is ironic that the man who runs the largest search engine on earth, processing 94% of all the requests from the world’s population, must remove himself to a region where there is no internet service. Talk about being the ultimate unsocial network networker. Caleb’s first contact at the “house’ is in the form of a verbal interface with a computer, not with a person. Again, the reduction to a digital form is echoed in the issuance of a photo passkey that determines the extent of Caleb’s freedom within the building. When the two men meet, Nathan tells Caleb that he has a severe hangover, and Caleb assumes he had a party. But, Nathan doesn’t have parties with other people. He drinks alone in the anti-social place he says is not his home (a place where humans reside) but which he labels a research facility, a laboratory where he conducts his experiments. He actually seems to have imported Caleb to play the role of a guy pal, someone he can share a drink and conversation with. A pal Nathan coldly requires to sign a detailed non disclosure agreement and who dictates where Caleb can go and what will constitute their interactions. When Caleb first sees Nathan, he is working out, and we later see him lifting weights and working a punching bag. This activity shows Nathan to be someone who enjoys power, muscling others, and, very really, bullying them. Indeed, when Nathan shows Caleb to his room, the host admits that it is claustrophobic, with no outside windows. It is like a cell, or a cage, where one could say that Caleb is imprisoned. Inside the building there are numerous rooms with glass walls, but Caleb sees a crack in one of the surfaces. It is an indication that this controlled retreat built by Nathan has flaws.

Nathan tells Caleb he didn’t want him there to have an employer-employee bonding session. He wants Caleb to be part of a “Turing test” to see if an AI, which he has already created, can pass for human. When Caleb finds out about this invention he says, in response to Nathan saying that he is part of the greatest scientific event in man’s history, “If you’ve created a conscious machine, it’s not the history of man. That’s the history of gods.” Later, Nathan takes this statement to validate his inflated ego, and says that Caleb called him a god. He then shows Caleb his AI creation, Ava (Alicia Vikander). Although parts of her body and her face look like a person, the rest of her construction shows her to be a machine. Caleb questions how can the Turing test be passed if he knows her to be a computing system. Nathan pushes the limits of the test because if Caleb accepts Ava as a successful AI despite knowing she is a mechanism, that would make for an even greater accomplishment.

Thanks to to IMDb for pointing out that Caleb, Nathan, and Ava refer to biblical names. Caleb was appointed by Moses to report on the Promised Land, as this Caleb has been assigned to provide input on the future of androids. Nathan was the name of a prophet in King David’s realm, and here he predicts the future of AI, even though his actions in the present are faulty. Ava sounds like Eve, who was the first female, as Ava is the first AI.
Caleb does question why Nathan made his AI gender specific. He wonders if she was programmed to flirt with Caleb, which would skew the test results. Nathan says in order to have a successful AI, there must be interaction. And, if the AI is to pass for human, people interact sexually. Of course, we later see that all of his AI prototypes are made to resemble women, and his approach to them is one of sexist domination. Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) is one of them. Caleb does not initially know she is an AI because she does not appear to be a machine. Nathan says she is a non-English speaking servant, who Nathan berates for spilling wine. Nathan’s anger here shows his intolerance for not having his environment totally under his control, even though he admits that mistakes seem to be unavoidable. This statement is a foreshadowing, like the crack in the wall, of what is to come. There are others, too. Reference is made to one of the developers of the atomic bomb, J. Robert Oppenheimer, who quoted from Hindu writings the phrase, “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” He was a scientist who expressed his guilt for his creation. Nathan says that his actions are “Promethian.” In mythology, Prometheus stole fire (inspiration? imagination? invention?) from the gods and gave it to man, and was punished for his infraction. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus has become a cautionary tale that warns against the overreaching pride of scientific meddling with the powers of nature. Nathan’s feeble defense of his actions is that what he has created was an inevitability. He does have a prophetic vision about the future evolution of humankind and AI’s. He tells Caleb, “One day the AI’s are going to look back on us the same way we look at fossil skeletons on the plains of Africa. An upright ape living in dust with crude language and tools, all set for extinction.”

Even though Nathan says he is testing AI and human interaction, he wants to control that connection by separating Caleb and Ava by glass walls. He tells Caleb that it is only natural that Ava would have a “crush” on Caleb since Nathan has built her with genital sensors and that Caleb is the first male she has seen other than Nathan, who is more of a father figure. Nathan’s visual monitoring of the two is voyeuristic, as if he he is vicariously enjoying the male - “female” experience in the only way that suits him, by manipulating the real and artificial intelligences.
Caleb finds Ava totally convincing in her dialogue with him. She learns about him. He lost his parents in a car accident at a young age, and he was hospitalized with injuries from that event. To compensate for that time in convalescence, he studied computers, as, he points out, did Nathan. So, he identifies with Nathan’s solitary life. Caleb, has no wife or girlfriend. In a sense, he, too, is married to his work with computers. Nathan shows Caleb his creation of a kind of fluid synthesized neurological system that departs from typical circuitry. That is the AI’s hardware. It turns out that her software comes from Nathan hacking the overwhelming amount of Blue Book searching information to program Ava based on, not “what” people think, but “how” they think. He gets away with this god-like Big Brother action because the computer manufacturers gather their information the same way.
There are numerous power failures occurring, which trigger auxiliary energy sources and lockdowns until restoration. At these times, the doors of the rooms and hallways are locked, except for those accessed by Nathan. Nathan appears vexed at the occurrences of these outages. During one of them, Ava tells Caleb that Nathan is not his friend, and that he lies about everything, and should not be trusted. He has seen on the closed circuit TV that Nathan took a drawing that Ava made of Caleb and ripped it up. Caleb is suspecting Nathan of abuse. Ava says that she is the reason for the outages, as she reverses her battery charging process and overloads the system’s power grid. She has shown what appears to be a romantic interest in Caleb, having said she wanted to go on a date with him. She puts on clothes and a wig so that she appears to be a real woman. She gains his sympathy because she has never been out of her room, and would like to go with Caleb to observe the world and its people. He does not reveal what she said to him to Nathan. So, Caleb now trusts a mechanism over a person.
During one of Nathan’s drunken binges, Caleb obtains Nathan’s keycard. He watches recordings of his manhandling prior android versions, including sexually using Kyoko. She once even started to undress for Caleb, as if programmed to do so. He finds Kyoko laying naked in Nathan’s room, and finds deactivated versions of other female AI’s in mirrored closets. (There are a lot of mirrors in the film. Caleb talks about how what they are doing is like “going through the looking glass,” referencing Alice in Wonderland. At one point he questions his own humanity, looking in a bathroom mirror, cutting his arm to see if he bleeds. Are the reflections, the mirror images of us, representative of the AI’s, the new, real thing?) Thank you to IMDb for pointing out that the bodies in Nathan’s room resemble those in the story of Bluebeard, which again shows Nathan’s misogyny.

During a blackout, Ava tells Caleb she wants to leave with him. He first tells her it is not up to him to grant her freedom. Ava astutely asks, “Why is it up to anyone?” Once sentient beings are created with free will (like humans), why should anyone have the right to interfere with that freedom? Caleb tells her to cause a power failure that evening. He will get Nathan drunk and reverse the security settings to free them. Caleb’s attempts to intoxicate Nathan fail. Nathan placed battery powered cameras so he observed Caleb plotting with Ava. Caleb now realizes that he did not win a lottery to to be with Nathan. And, despite his host’s earlier deception that Caleb was chosen for his talent, he now understands the truth. Nathan chose him because of his loner status, and his good moral compass, which would cause him to want to help Ava. His background made him prone to Ava’s manipulation to gain freedom. Caleb even sees that using Blue Book, Nathan made Ava fit Caleb’s porn searches so that she would appear more alluring to Caleb. Nathan contributed to the scenario by making Caleb feel sympathy toward Ava by tearing up her art, and saying he would erase her memories if she failed the Turing test. Nathan’s real test was to see if Ava would use the characteristics of self-awareness, imagination, manipulation, sexuality, and empathy to get what she wanted, which was to escape. So, she passed the test, becoming all too human.

However, Nathan underestimated Caleb, who assumed that Nathan observed the meetings between Ava and Caleb during the outages. So, Caleb already reprogrammed the security sessions during Nathan’s previous night of binge drinking. When Ava causes the power blackout, Ava’s, and Kyoko’s, doors open. We see Ava and Kyoko talking to each other. There is a violent confrontation between Ava and Nathan, who rips off one of Ava’s arms. Kyoko comes up from behind and stabs Nathan. He breaks off Kyoko’s face, but is again stabbed by Ava, and he dies. She takes Nathan’s keycard. She uses the parts she needs from the prior prototypes so she can appear truly like a person. She locks the doors behind her, reversing the incarceration process, making the human Caleb a prisoner. Since it was to be Caleb’s last day, she escapes in the helicopter after it lands.

We next see Ava fulfilling her dream. She is at a busy city intersection, observing people. The humans’ shadows are seen cast on an underpass ceiling, as if to imply they are now diminished copies of the ideal creation (think Plato). Perhaps Nathan’s prediction of human extinction and replacement has begun.

The next film is Contact.

Sunday, August 13, 2017


SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.

Yes, it’s Alfred Hitchcock time again. This 1946 film deals with the issue of who can one trust, especially when the only aspect of a person that one knows is his or her reputation. How someone appears on a superficial assessment may not truly represent the inner workings of a person.
After the titles and a statement that we are in Miami, the first scene is of news reporters peering into a courtroom as a verdict involving the crime of treason is pronounced. The shot implies that we are getting only a part of the whole story, since the camera is like a voyeur, objectifying the object of observation, not considering peripheral elements. In this case, the journalists only want a sensational story, without a search for depth. We get the ramifications of the legal sentencing as the focus shifts to the daughter of the convicted person, Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman). We see her at a party, getting drunk, which is not what one would expect since her father has been sent to prison for having been a Nazi spy. So, the title of the film refers to Alicia’s father. But, it also includes his daughter by association. Add to that, we have a woman who likes to drink, have rowdy parties, and has a promiscuous reputation. On the surface, she would seem to be someone who would raise trust issues. There is an intoxicated man at the party who talks about fishing. The reference seems to imply that there is a need in the story to “fish” for clues to find out what is really going on, but one may encounter a few “red herrings,” that can lead a character astray.
The irony is that Alicia can, based on appearances, be a good double agent to infiltrate the circle of her father’s associates. We see the back of a man at Alicia’s party. This shot implies that his true character is an unknown, also. The man is Devlin (Cary Grant). The two flirt, and even in their back-and-forth there is a cynicism, a suspiciousness about anything noble or pure. She says, “Nothing like a love song to give you a good laugh,” and he confirms the feeling by saying, “that’s right.” Her overt sexual nature is evident when he asks her when they go outside if she will need a coat. She says, “you’ll do.” This statement, however, just reinforces his preconceived notion of her as being a tramp. Alicia takes him for a drunken drive. Her shame involving her father comes to the surface when she says she might as well get arrested, then her whole family will be in jail. She drives recklessly, but he is pretty cool under the circumstances, and we soon learn why. When a policeman pulls Alicia over, Devlin flashes his ID, and the cop quickly  becomes subservient. Alicia, who has been followed by authorities who think she has information about her father’s contacts, is angry that Devlin is just another policeman harassing her, and she has trust issues with him now since he was not what he appeared to be. She physically struggles with him, and he knocks her out with a short jab, effective given her consumption of alcohol. But, it does show his hard edge, that he is committed to getting his job done, no matter the means.

As Alicia wakes up, we see the surroundings through her eyes. Things seem crooked, out of focus. Devlin is there, but he appears upside down. We are in a world where things are not straightforward, right and wrong may have exchanged positions, and its deceptiveness makes it difficult to navigate morally. Devlin tells her he has a job for her. She knows her father’s Nazi associates who are in Brazil, and may be able to “sell her trust” to them so she can provide the American intelligence community with information. It is interesting that “selling” here is equated with a type of sham, which makes sense since it is self-serving. Trusting someone can be a treacherous risk. She is resistant, saying that Devlin’s patriotism is insincere, self-serving. But, he had her place bugged, and recordings show that Alicia was against her father’s activities, hated him for it, and loved her new country, the United States. So, her true American patriotism is revealed, and her morality, ironically, through deceptive eavesdropping. She agrees to help, but she will be putting herself in danger, raising the question of how much must be sacrificed to get the job done?
Before her assignment, the two spend some time together, and romantic feelings emerge. She says she is a changed woman. He doesn’t want to admit, even to himself, that he is falling in love with her. His skepticism emerges about her ability to be faithful to him when she says that he will probably say he is really married and has a family. He tells her that she must hear that line a lot. The implication is that she has been with many men, even ones that are married. They fly down to Rio together along with Devlin’s boss, Paul Prescott (Louis Calhern). On the flight, Devlin tells Alicia that her father poisoned himself in prison, and is dead. (The poisoning here turns out to be a foreshadowing event). She remembers how nice it was with her father before she found out that he was involved with Nazis. Another deception, even worse here because it involves father and daughter. In Rio, she tells Devlin that she has dreams of being an innocent child. But, her “notorious” past keeps interfering with Devlin’s ability to trust her. She has been eight days sober, and he sarcastically says that she is trying to “whitewash” her past. She feels helpless that he believes, “once a tramp, always a tramp.” When she accuses him of feeling ashamed of falling for her, he kisses her, illustrating his torn feelings.
The tension on their relationship is increased because of her assignment, which is to rekindle her relationship with German industrialist Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains), with whom Alicia was once romantically involved. Alicia hopes that Devlin will admit his love for her, and then she would refuse the assignment. But, he can’t get past his doubts concerning her past, and his jealousy will not allow him to think clearly. He leaves it up to her. She says that their love affair is a strange one, because “you don’t love me.” In the absence of any protestations from Devlin, she feels defeated, and goes along with the mission. She may also want to punish Devlin for not committing to her.

The plan is to have Alicia meet Sebastian at a horse riding club. Horses, as was noted in the posts on Equus and Hitchcock’s Marnie, are archetypal symbols for male sexuality. A staged runaway horse allows Sebastian to rescue Alicia in manly fashion, and their reunion progresses from there. Devlin’s presence is explained as a chance meeting on the plane to Rio, where Devlin became infatuated with Alicia. This set-up promotes interest through romantic competition, but, ironically, Devlin is secretly emotionally fixated on Alicia. Whereas Devlin’s jealousy undermines his clarity of thought, so, too, does lust blind Sebastian to any possible intrigue concerning Alicia’s presence in Rio. Indeed, Sebastian says that meeting Alicia again brought back an old “hunger,” which suggests how sexual desire is associated with a person’s “appetites.” How a man allow a woman’s attractiveness to place him in a precarious situation is one of the main themes of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, as was explored in a previous post. Sebastian does recognize the spy boss Prescott, but Alicia explains, truthfully, that she has been harassed by U. S. Government officials  because of her father’s actions. She lies, though, when she says she came to Rio for an escape from those agents, and says her father was unselfish, and wanted her to leave America for her safety.

Sebastian’s mother (Leopoldine Konstantin) is immune to Alicia’s charms, and is suspicious of her. She questions why she did not testify at her father’s trial in his support. Mrs. Sebastian does not seem to buy Alicia’s explanation that her father wanted her to be kept away from the legal proceedings. Sebastian has been won over, and does not listen to his mother’s misgivings. He accuses her of her own maternal jealousy, wanting to always keep him away from romantic interests. At a party held by Sebastian with the Nazi sympathizers in attendance, Alicia notices that one of the men, Emil, gestures and makes a bit of a scene about a wine bottle. Later, the conspirators decide that Emil almost exposed their plans, and must be eliminated in what will look like an auto accident. Later, at the horse races, Alicia slips away (with Mrs. Sebastian noting her prolonged absence), and meets Devlin. She tells him about the fuss over the wine bottle. She adds, probably again to get a reaction from Devlin, that he can add Sebastian to her list of “playmates,” meaning she slept with him. Devlin seethes, and says she didn’t waste any time. She counters with it’s what he wanted. She was testing him, seeing if he would protest her role, which would show Devlin’s love for Alicia. But, at the same time, he was testing her, waiting for her to not agree to getting close to Sebastian, which would demonstrate her love for him. The suspicion, the lack of trust, caused them to hedge their bets, and kept them apart. He says if he had prevented her from doing the job, then they wouldn’t achieve the government’s mission. The thrust here is that there is a great deal of personal compromising sometimes when the bigger stakes are in play. The irony is that in the spy game, the chances of success are improved when people with moral flexibility are involved.
However, when Devlin meets with his colleagues and one comments on Alicia’s “notorious” background, Devlin comes to her defense, praising her courage. He says, “Miss Huberman is first, last, and always not a lady. She may be risking her life, but when it comes to being a lady, she doesn’t hold a candle to your wife, sitting in Washington, playing bridge with three other ladies of great honor and virtue.” He basically is saying being held in high esteem without action to back up the admired position is worthless. Alicia meets with the agents because she asks for advice about the extreme position she is in. Sebastian has asked her to marry him. They agree that she should go through with the marriage, with Devlin giving a sarcastic approval.

After the honeymoon, they return to Sebastian’s mansion. Alicia gets Sebastian to get keys from his mother so she can have access to all of the closets in the house. This action symbolically shows how she can get him to unlock his secrets through her feminine manipulation. But, the wine cellar is under lock and key, and it would be too suspicious if she tried to ask for the keys and investigate the area herself. She does take the key off of Sebastian’s chain when he is not carrying it. Devlin tells Alicia to get Sebastian to throw a party, and she should invite him to the event. Sebastian discovered them at the racetrack, but Alicia said that despite Devlin’s romantic persistence, she keeps rejecting him. Devlin says that she should tell Sebastian that when he, Devlin, sees how happy they are, he will relinquish his pursuit. When she tells Sebastian, he says, “It’s not that I don’t trust you.” But, he shouldn’t. The irony here is that her appearances with Sebastian are insincere, but he allows himself to be duped, while, she is straightforward about her feelings for Devlin, and he won’t trust her, because of her superficial reputation.
At the party, Alicia goes with Devlin to the wine cellar. He accidentally knocks over a bottle. In it, it turns out, is a mineral substance used in making a nuclear weapon. He tries to hide the broken bottle shards under the racks, and pours the contents into another bottle of wine that he has emptied of its liquid. On the way out, Devlin sees Sebastian approaching. He kisses Alicia. Their story is that he tried to force himself on her, but she resisted. Devlin apologizes and leaves. But, Sebastian sees the wine cellar key is missing from his chain. When he wakes in the morning, it has been returned. He also found spilled wine from the bottle Devlin emptied, broken glass, and sees that there was an attempt to make another bottle to appear as if it was still sealed. Sebastian goes to his mother and says he has been fooled and is married to an American spy. He fears for his own life now, because the others would kill Sebastian if they found out he allowed their plans to be compromised. Mrs. Sebastian says, to avoid suspicion, Alicia’s death must be slow. They decide to put poison in her coffee. This action again stresses the theme of how appearances can be deceiving. While the Sebastians on the surface appear to be caring for Alicia as she becomes weak and dizzy, they are in fact hiding their treachery in an innocent looking beverage.
Devlin meets with Alicia at one point, and she looks terrible. She says it’s due to her drinking, because that is what Devlin wants to believe. But, when Prescott says that they haven’t heard from Alicia for a while, Devlin starts to get over his prejudices concerning Alicia, and realizes that she looked sick, not hungover. Alicia discovers that the Sebastians are poisoning her when they refuse to let someone take her to a hospital, and yell out when a guest accidentally picks up her coffee cup. They place her isolated in her bedroom, and remove her telephone, under the pretense of not wanting her disturbed. In the meantime, agents start following Sebastian, and the latter’s conspirators take notice, so they become suspicions of Sebastian. Devlin shows up at Sebastian’s house while the other Nazis are there. He finds out from a servant that Alicia has been in bed for a week. He goes upstairs and finds the gravely ill Alicia, who says that she realizes she has been poisoned. She tells him that the mineral ore is brought in from nearby mountains. He says now that he has loved her from the start, and she professes her love for him.
Devlin carries Alicia out, warning Sebastian that he will tell his “guests’ that he has been compromised by American spies. Sebastian turns to go inside the house, the fellow Nazis waiting there for him, and the door closing behind him shows that he is about to meet his doom. Devlin drives Alicia away to safety.

As Billy Joel sang, “everyone is so untrue.” Trust is, indeed, hard to come by, in international politics, and especially in matters of the heart. But, having preconceived, stereotypical notions about people, just makes it more difficult to fairly judge others.

The next film is Ex Machina.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Broadcast News

SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.

This film came out in 1987, and like others that have been discussed here, such as A Face in the Crowd, Network, and Wag the Dog, it comments on the trend in the media to move away from objectivity and accuracy to subjective interpretation and manipulation of events, and the rise of entertainment star power to shape the information provided to the public.

The movie, written and directed by James L. Brooks, effectively presents its themes by focusing on three main characters, who are outsiders passing through mainstream America. The first scene shows a young Tom Grunick (Kimber Shoop) riding in the truck belonging to father Gerald (Stephen Mendillo). He is an attractive boy, and is confused by the women he encounters saying that when he grows older, he will have to “beat them off with a stick,” He is not doing well academically in school, but it is not because he doesn’t put effort into his studies. Young Tom feels embarrassed that he is only valued for how he naturally looks, which reflects no individual achievement. Because of how he feels, he is alienated from his surroundings. He poses the question, what kind of work can you get if all you do is look good? A subscript appears that reads, “Future network anchorman.” So, the message is that appearance will become more important than substance in television news.

The next scene is that of the young Aaron Altman (Dwayne Markee), giving the valedictory address at his high school. He states in his speech that his academic achievements, and probably his condescension toward others because of his brilliance, have made him the target of bullies. So, he too, is an outsider. When the tough boys ambush Aaron after the ceremony, he tells them that, unlike himself, they will never make more than $19,000 a year, will not leave South Boston, and won’t write an elegant sentence or have an original thought. But, these brutes don’t care, saying that 19 grand sounds good to them. They do not have the talent or vision to appreciate Aaron’s abilities. We then get the subscript referring to Aaron that he is a future TV news journalist.

We then move to a young Jane Craig (Gennie James), whose father (Leo Burmester) tells her that she has to stop typing her pen-pal letters so late. He accuses her of being obsessive. She interrupts her activity to correct her father because he has taught her to use words precisely, and if she was obsessive she would not be able to interrupt her typing to correct him. The notation this time is that Jane will be a future television news producer. It appears that Brooks wants us to know that he admires those behind the network news camera more than the attractive reporters in front of the lens.

We jump to the present and the adult Jane (Holly Hunter) and Aaron (Albert Brooks) are friends, working at a Washington D. C. network news office. The first thing we hear her say is a critique of some piece of news reporting. He jokes about the emphasis on movie stars, where Arnold Schwarzenegger is appearing on all three morning news shows at the same time. He jokes that the actor is live on two of them, satirizing how we raise celebrities above human standards, and showing how serious news is neglected to stress entertainment. Their righteous indignation is admirable from a professional standpoint, but continual criticism also can alienate others, and adds to their solitary roles in life.
Jane is a perfectionist, and in a world proliferating with imperfections, she finds herself in a painful situation due to her awareness of so many flaws. She must disconnect her phone line every day and take a minute to have a loud cathartic cry and shed tears at her perceptive lot in life (not unlike the eventually tortured Mozart, a genius among mediocrities, noted in last week’s post on Amadeus). She gives a speech to journalists to warn against how TV news is turning into an entertainment medium, but her words are met with yawns, people exiting, and private conversations. She shows a short video of an elaborate domino exhibition that played on the networks instead of news about military disarmament. The audience totally misses the message and laughs and applauds at the spectacle, showing how Jane’s battle is an uphill one if people in her own industry don’t see the danger of flash over substance taking over their profession.
One person, the adult Tom (William Hurt), who is the dumb gorgeous blonde in this story, is the only one to tell Jane that he thinks her presentation was terrific. She is immediately attracted to him, asks him to dinner, and eventually to her hotel room. He smiles and takes a beat. He seems taken aback for a moment, as if to indicate that instead of considering what he has to say seriously, she is coming on to him, which probably has been his past experience. He goes with her, and when he turns away from her request for a back rub, confesses that he was made anchor at a local station. But, he has no college education, can’t write copy, and doesn’t understand half of what he is reporting. Hurt does a good job throughout the movie with his body movements, bending his upper body backward when he gets info he can’t process, as if it is throwing him for a loop. He also squints, showing how he is trying to concentrate to try to understand what he is being told. Tom obviously feels guilty about getting promotions and making good money when he knows he doesn’t deserve it. Thus, he feels like an outsider among those with whom he works.  However, his self-loathing over his professional shortcomings don’t stop him from accepting positions and submitting audition tapes to national news networks. On the plus side, he admits that people liking him allows him to make news contacts, and he doesn’t lack confidence about his television presence.

After Tom does not respond to Jane’s seductive moves, she brutally says not to whine about his inadequacies. He should work on being better prepared. She won’t give him permission to be a “fake.” She admits that he represents what she sees as the precarious path on which TV news is headed. Ironically, she intellectually knows that Tom is not right for her as a romantic interest, yet, she, like others, can’t help but be emotionally drawn to someone who is so pleasing to the eyes. What she says to him is accurate, but the bluntness smells like retribution for his not accepting her sexual overtures. She voices her general failure in seducing people to Aaron in a phone conversation, so, romantically she realizes that she is not a successful people person. Later, co-worker Blair Litton (Joan Cusack) tells her that Jane, “Except for socially, you are my role model,” a perceptive evaluation. Aaron knows Tom must be attractive because, he says, nobody invites “a bad looking idiot” to one’s bedroom. Aaron, also a loner, voices his concerns about why he has had personal failures with others. He looks to an inverse world for hope, that doesn’t just value surface appearance, saying, “Wouldn’t this be a great world, if insecurity and desperation made us more attractive? If needy were a turn-on?” These two are tough in their jobs, but vulnerable in their private lives.

Tom calls Jane and tells her he was hired by her network and that they will be working together. She and Aaron are outraged that their office would choose Tom over another highly qualified reporter. We witness Jane’s drive to excel as she puts together one of Aaron’s stories about a returning war veteran. Tom sees her expertise and is excited by her abilities. He tells her he would like to pick her brain, but she coldly says that she is not there to “teach remedial reporting.” He questions whether her attitude has something to do with the fact that he walked out on her. She completely denies that take on it, but Tom has a point.

Tom’s arrival at the newsroom is an indication to Aaron that his profession is going downhill, but he already has reservations. He asks his colleagues if any would tell a source that he or she was in love with the person to get information. He also asks if they should televise an execution. They unhesitatingly say yes to both questions. Aaron comments that they obviously don’t have any soul-searching problems over moral dilemmas. The exemplary journalistic abilities of Jane and Aaron are on display when they go to Central America to report on Sandinistas participating in a rebellion. Aaron is fluent in Spanish. Jane will not cause their presence to interfere with the soldiers’ actions. She says, “we are not here to stage the news,” which shows her high standards of keeping the media objective and non-manipulative. Later, while under gunfire, Aaron still carries out his reporting duties, with Jane by his side. He is able to diffuse the tension with humor when he says, “I just risked my life for a network that tests my face with focus groups.” But, this statement also shows his insecurity in the current state of network news and his disdain for his employer’s stressing appearance over achievement.
How these two comrades’ characteristics distance themselves from others can be seen in the way they interact with network anchor Bill Rorish (Jack Nicholson). Albeit, he has too much power and makes way too much money, but he does call Jane to compliment her on her Central America piece. But, instead of  accepting the praise gracefully, her perfectionism cause her to criticize Rorish for cutting the first twenty seconds of the story. She tries to elicit some praise for Aaron, but apparently he once made a comment about Rorish’s receding hairline, and that is why Aaron feels he not in the anchor’s good graces. It is true that Aaron’s comment may have hit at the overemphasis on appearance in TV news, but he lacks the tact to ingratiate himself with others, which just contributes to his self-celebrated outsider status.
Tom tries to establish his worth with his contacts. He finds out about a useless, expensive American weapons system. But, when taking down information about showing up at an address, he can’t remember the numbers, and only recalls the street name because it is Colorado, as he says, “like the state.” Mental processes are very much a test for him. Jane produces the story, and when it is aired, Aaron makes snarky comments about how Jane wrote the copy. She says she has written some of Aaron’s work, but he counters “not because you had to,” which is a shot at Tom. She left in a part in the story where Tom apologizes for hounding the general he is trying to interview. She is crossing her own line, because she says it humanized the reporter, and utilized Tom’s appeal. Other workers find it a positive element in the piece. But, Aaron sees it as a compromise of journalistic rules, and says, “Yes, we must remember, we are the story.” (As an indication of how Tom’s physical attraction makes more of an impact than a person’s other qualities, the daughter of bureau chief Ernie Merriman (Robert Prosky) never wants to meet anyone at the office, but wants to be introduced to Tom. She doesn’t even remember Aaron, who has visited her house numerous times and with whom she was on a fourteen day canoe trip).
At a get-together for employees, we see Jane’s mixed feelings about Tom heightening. Female correspondent Jennifer Mack (Lois Chiles), seeing how much time Tom and Jane spend together, asks Jane for permission to see Tom socially. Jane first says she doesn’t mind, but then changes her mind. She literally thinks out loud, wondering how can she care, when she doesn’t respect Tom. Tom spots her and says she looks “clean,” because at the office she appears to have a “film” covering her. Jane takes this statement as an awkward, unintelligent observation, and goes to tell Jennifer that it is okay for her to pursue Tom. But, Tom unknowingly makes an insightful remark, because Jane is so wrapped up in her drive to excel at her job, that she is metaphorically cloaked in video tape at work. She sacrifices displaying her personal attractiveness, submerging her other qualities, in order to channel all of her energy into producing the news.
At the party, they receive word that Libya has bombed a United States air base in Sicily. Jane is picked to executive produce the story, and because Aaron resided in Libya for a period and met the country’s leader, Muammar Gaddafi, she assumes that he will anchor the broadcast. However, the network wants Tom to do it. She tells her boss, Paul Moore (Peter Hackes) that his choice of Tom is wrong. He says to her, “It must be nice to always believe you know better, to always think you’re the smartest person in the room.” Jane has a painful look on her face as she responds, “No. It’s awful.” This admission explains why she needs that time every day to cry, to relieve herself of that burden of responsibility that comes from her highly evolved ability to realize how excellence is compromised by the flawed workers surrounding her.

In order to make the news piece successful, she wants her mic tied in directly to Tom’s earpiece so she can tell him everything to say. Jane performs flawlessly, and makes Tom look informed. Tom is not nervous, because he realizes how he is accepted as a dispenser of the news. He knows exactly what shirt and tie to wear, how to sell himself. Aaron s relegated to being at his home, where he can sing French and read at the same time, and comment on his own multitasking abilities. He is a Renaissance man, but an arrogant one. He calls in information about fighter planes and Gaddafi, and when his words come out of Tom’s mouth, he tells Jane, “What’s next lip-syncing?” Indeed, Tom is like Jane’s ventriloquist dummy. Aaron’s statements remind one of Dustin Hoffman’s movie producer dictating the words that come out of the White House press secretary’s mouth in Wag the Dog. A significant ending to the broadcast occurs when Tom must stretch to fill time and he says, because the military threat is diffused, “I think we’re all okay.” Bureau Chief Ernie looks angered by the comment, and says to the TV monitor, “Who the hell cares what you think.” At the time of the movie’s release in 1987, inserting the reporter’s personal feelings was considered a lowering of broadcast news quality. Brooks obviously saw the negative trend which TV news was following. Now, it is almost impossible to not hear newscasters not espousing their personal feelings and views, and objectivity is all but lost.
Since he has collaborated successfully at work with Jane, Tom now allows himself to think of her romantically, saying how her feeding him the lines was as good as great sex. But, she is still torn between her attraction for him and her disdain for the lowering of expertise that he represents. When he suggests celebrating their Libya story, she says she promised to see Aaron first. Although she only sees Aaron as a friend, she constantly gravitates toward him as a safe place to escape her giving in to intimacy with Tom. Aaron, however, sees Jane as more than a friend. He feels relaxed with her so he can share his misgivings about his career. He wants to anchor the weekend news so that he can show how he deserves a promotion and can earn more money. But, he also knows that will cause him to be at management’s mercy. He confesses what really matters to him is Jane. He is drunk and kisses her goodnight in almost a slapstick way to protect him from rejection, and hides his feelings by jokingly saying, “Well, I felt something.”

At an Italian embassy party, Aaron humiliates Tom by getting him to show that he does not know anything about government cabinet members. But, it does illustrate Tom’s ignorance, and Aaron catches him in a hypocrisy. Tom says he promised never to pretend to know something he didn’t. But, he then acts like he knows the names of cabinet members when he is unaware of even the number of positions. Tom drives Jane home from the embassy, and she takes on the role from Aaron of being an awkward seducer, as she is the now the one who is drunk, and after saying how exhausted she is, asks him to come inside. She and Tom are always out of synch in the romance department (you would think they would see this red flag), and here again, Tom backs off, not wanting to take advantage of Jane’s intoxicated state, but wanting her sober acceptance of him. That she is conflicted when it comes to Tom can be seen later when, after giving Jennifer permission to date Tom, she then sends Jennifer to Alaska to cover a serial killer case, thus removing her as a temptation for Tom. (Jennifer is on the same appearance-is-all wavelength as Tom, since she converted a whole bedroom into a clothes closet, which Tom praises for putting a high priority on storing and seeing the tools of attractive packaging).

Tom continues to work at proving his worth. He wants to do a story from start to finish on his own. He picks the topic of date-rape, which at the time of the movie’s release, was not covered extensively in the news. He interviews a victim, and he allows himself to be seen tearing up as she tells her story. This action will come back to punish him in the end. However, the women in the newsroom respond positively to Tom’s show of emotion, because it reveals his empathy to them. Even though Jane says it might not have been her choice, the piece moved her. But, Aaron is hostile to the emotional display, saying sarcastically, “sex, tears … this must be the news.” Instead of just criticizing the showing of the reporter’s subjective response, Aaron even dismisses the story as sensationalism, instead of recognizing the real problem being exposed.
There are a number of proposed layoffs being contemplated, which shows the precarious nature of the journalistic world, which has carried into the present with the endangered area of print news. Because Aaron is afraid of being fired, he gets Ernie to give him a shot at anchoring the weekend newscast, since almost the entire staff is going to a correspondents’ dinner. But, Ernie says that Aaron needs brushing up on presenting the news. And, who knows about that? None other than Tom! Now the roles are reversed, as Tom is the master and Aaron is the ignorant one. In rehearsal, Tom shows Aaron how to sit on his sports jacket to show a smooth shoulder line. He tells him that he must look into the monitor instead of just reading the copy, so as to connect with the audience. Tom instructs him to not have his eyes move from left to right, because he will appear shifty. He says that he must punch an idea in a sentence for effect. Tom sums up by telling Aaron, “Everybody has to sell a little. You’re selling them this idea of you, you know, you’re sort of saying trust me I’m, um, credible. So when you feel yourself just reading, stop! Start selling a little.” Thus, the message is that the information will not get delivered to an entertainment dependent public unless it is appealingly wrapped.

Aaron writes great copy for the broadcast, which is his strength, but the “selling” of the news is not his area. He gets a drenching case of “flop sweat.” This episode is very funny, as the staff tries to dry him off as perspiration rolls down his face and soaks through his clothes. He later tells Jane that it became funny, and that his subconscious was telling him that anchoring is not for him, despite what fame and fortune it may bring. While Aaron is anchoring, Tom and Jane go on their first real date to the correspondents’ dinner. Outside, they finally kiss, but again, Jane pulls the plug on the evening, again running off to Aaron because she promised to look over a tape of his weekend newscast. She says she will meet up with Tom later.
When she finds out from Aaron what a mess his program was, she calls Tom to say she will be delayed. Tom reacts coolly, saying they should call off anything for the rest of the night. He tells her he isn’t something she has to deal with on her schedule. She is very hurt, and after hanging up, admits to Aaron that she may love Tom. Aaron’s first response is one of extreme anger. He tells her to get the hell out of his place and she can go to hell. The, he reconsiders, and needs to take a moment before telling her why it is so important that she not be with Tom. He says that while Tom, although appearing to be a nice guy is, in fact, “the devil.” He argues that the devil will not look like a monster, because he would only repel others. He says, “He will be attractive. He’ll be nice and helpful. He’ll get a job where he influences a great God-fearing nation. He’ll never do an evil thing. He’ll never deliberately hurt a living thing. He will just bit by bit lower our standards where they are important. Just a tiny little bit. Just coax along flash over substance. Just a tiny little bit. And he’ll talk about all of us really being salesmen. And he’ll get all the great women.” Here, he means Jane. He then admits that he is in love with her. When Jane hears that, she looks like she was slapped by the emotion of it. For someone so insightful about the news, she is blind as to recognizing how she has hurt a friend who has genuine, loving feelings for her. And, this fact points to her inadequacies when it comes to relationships. When the next day she delivers an angry rant at Tom for cutting her off the night before, she doesn’t realize that Tom’s dad is in his office. She apologizes and leaves. But, Tom’s father correctly says that is not how an “affectionate” person acts.

There follows a hard day of massive layoffs. But, Jane is promoted to Ernie’s job as Bureau Chief. Aaron was told he was a cost-effective reporter so he could stay. Because of his versatility, he could be plugged in anywhere. His response to this use of him as a cost-effective management tool is to quit in support of those fired. Tom doesn’t even realize that he is being groomed to be the next network anchor, being sent to London, the way Rorish was. Visually, we see the baton being passed to the next man to sit in the big chair as the camera zooms in on the handshake between Rorish and Tom.

Tom suggests that he and Jane fly to a beach somewhere and see how they are together away from the interference of the work. She meets with Aaron again, whos is still angry with her. But, he concedes that they will remain friends. However, he tells her something, that despite the fact it will hurt her in the short run, she should know before committing to Tom. He says that Tom had only one camera when he filmed the interview with the date-rape victim. So, how could his tearful response have been spontaneous? She reviews the raw footage, and is incensed when she realizes he used his acting skills to subsequently stage his emotional, manipulative response. She confronts him at the airport, tells him that he ethically crossed the line, and could get fired for what he did. He responds that he was promoted for what he has done. And, that is the scary point of the story. He flies off, and she remains behind.
Unfortunately, Brooks, drawing on his sit-com background, provides an unsatisfying, happy ending. The story jumps ahead seven years. Tom, although getting the promotion to network anchorman, admits at a news conference that he is not qualified to determine news content or write the copy. Aaron is working successfully at a local affiliate, is married, and his son is with him at the news conference. Aaron invites Tom to meet up with Jane, who has decided to accept the job as Tom’s managing editor, so she will be the power behind the man. Tom is engaged, and Jane has a love interest.

It would have been much more satisfying if the film showed the inevitable consequences of its theme of the selling out of the TV news industry to superficiality and celebrity.

The next film is Notorious.