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.

1 comment:

  1. I love reading through an article that will make men and women think.
    Also, many thanks for allowing me to comment!


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