After-Image: ‘Broadcast News’

❉ With the rise of Fox News, has time been kind to 1987’s Broadcast News?

As a lover of cult television and films, the word ‘dated’ is my bête noire. I can’t count the number of times I’ve fumed at it being used when the writer can’t conceive of a world before their time. For me, it’s an easy excuse for ignorance, and I’ll go out of my way to look up a reference or to take an educated guess at a reference. It’s all part of the pleasure for me, and I feel that if the material’s strong enough, there’s not a human story that can’t bridge the time gap.

Therefore, it’s a terrible shock to watch a film that I feel has genuinely suffered from having been made 30 years ago. When I finished Broadcast News, I frowned, opened my laptop and searched for reviews. It was puzzling to see that it was very well received on release, with the famous critic Roger Ebert giving it a startling amount of praise. One of the reasons I chose to review this for WAC was because I work for a major news channel; surely a no-brainer, right? So what’s my problem?

I can’t help but feel that because Broadcast News is debating a very important question; that of whether US network news should be factual or have entertainment elements, that it felt really relevant and vibrant at the time. It’s still an important issue, and one could argue that the film is quite prescient, given the rise of Fox News and the election of Donald Trump, but perhaps the major problem for a modern viewer is that you’re being asked to care passionately for an argument which, in the main, has moved on.

No-one knowledgeable today is seriously taking the position, advocated by close colleagues Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks), the network’s star reporter and Jane Craig (Holly Hunter), the network’s top producer, that news is best delivered for a mass audience by those gathering such news. The new anchorman, Tom Grunick (William Hurt), haunted by the fact that his good looks have brought him success, but at the cost of being taken seriously by producers and reporters such as Jane and Aaron, argues that news needs to have an element of salesmanship in order to move a mass audience. Tom is somewhat set up to be a villain, but he’s actually broadly correct, which I suspect is much easier to see 30 years hence than it was in 1987.

However, this sort of problem can be overcome if the central story is strong enough, and I think this might be the film’s major stumbling block. The characters are set up in what is a fairly obvious love triangle, which drives the film, as close friends Aaron and Jane deal with the arrival of handsome Tom. Although two men fighting over a woman was, I suspect, a bit hackneyed even then, if the characters are charming enough, you can usually get away with it.

Unfortunately, what are reasonable performances by the three main actors are derailed somewhat by the main debate, which turns Aaron and Jane into squawking, boring snobs, with Tom being the most rounded character of them all. I suspect Jane’s regular habit of starting the day with a sobbing fit was intended to bring vulnerability and charm to her role, but I just found it rather irritating, and I couldn’t really identify with what I presumed to be her struggle in a man’s world.

In fact, I saw a much more interesting character in the network’s main female reporter, Jennifer, who Jane sends away on assignment in what is an outrageous act of petty jealousy, especially as Jennifer had already tried to establish whether Jane was interested in Tom. Jane’s answer of ‘yes, but I shouldn’t, as he violates all my principles’ and then her anger at Jennifer spending the night with Tom anyway rather paints Jane as a petulant bully.

The film’s denouement also relies on Jane being quite astonishingly naive, which Ebert didn’t see as a problem. No, it doesn’t dismantle the film, but it does rather give the viewer yet another reason to find Jane completely unsympathetic. Reporter Aaron is also naive and rather pathetic when passed over for anchoring a major report in favour of Tom, despite his attempts to help ‘for the good of the news’.

So, does love win out? Do our triumvirate follow their hearts? Well, sort of, but not in the way that the film suggests for the previous two acts. I guess the final conclusion is at least unusual, but it seems fairly clear that no-one in the film really learns anything, let alone how they ought to present the news. In that, I guess the film is true to life, but it does leave this reviewer questioning whether the time spent was worth it.

❉ Tanya Jones became addicted to cult TV from the moment that she watched Logopolis on her dad’s knee, thus acquiring a lifelong fear of pylons. A general interest in British pop culture from 1955 onwards is expressed through her blog Gypsy Creams, which looks at magazines from the ’50 and ’60s, mainly with fascinated horror. She co-runs the Red Dwarf fan site Ganymede and Titan and pursues her hobby of British television presentation by getting paid to do it.

Become a patron at Patreon!