Thursday, September 27, 2007

Broadcast News is one of the great movies

They're at a D.C. cocktail party, one of a handful that drift in and out of this movie, and these parties, they seem romantic and unbearable at once.

Tom is feeling confessional and reflective, but he has the bad luck that the mood strikes him when he's next to Aaron.

"What do you do when your real life exceeds your dreams?" Tom says.

"Keep it to yourself," Aaron hisses.

In Broadcast News, every character upsets our expectations. The good-looking, shallow anchor played by William Hurt is sincere and decent. Tom's in over his head, but at least he knows it. He spends the movie mystified by his good fortune, unsure of how he got so far on a head so empty. Tom probably would have been happy as a sportscaster in Tampa, but instead finds himself anchoring live during the latest crisis with Libya, pulled into the D.C. cocktail-party circuit, subject to feuds and vendettas that weren't his own doing.

Holly Hunter's character proves the adage about all cynics being failed romantics. She argues with the boss on a staffing decision; he practically rolls his eyes, with the weariness of a man who's been down this path before. "It must be nice to always believe you know better," he says, "to always think you're the smartest person in the room." She pauses, her voice almost cracking, and says, "No. It's awful."

Poor Jane. She can't turn the switch to off. She observes out loud that she's repelling the men that she's trying to attract, but that's the perfectionist's burden. She holds herself and her profession to standards that are unattainable. When other people can't meet the criteria she imposes on herself, she's furious and mystified.

Lastly, there's Albert Brooks. In most movies, the earnest smart guy is the anti-hero and the sympathetic one. Aaron is anything but. Smug and insecure, he can't help but show off. He resents Tom because Jane is attracted to him, and then he resents Tom for his superior on-air presence, but without these tensions he'd belittle Tom just the same. He can't stomach the stupid, and when his desperation to be liked doesn't yield dividends, Aaron lashes out.

Broadcast News can be minimized as a romantic comedy, and it's been reviewed as a critique of its title subject, but ultimately it's neither. It's about people who can't reconcile their goals with their personalities. Hard news as a concept is quickly dying: People want domino rallies and stories about date rape, not reporting on nuclear arms reduction. Jane has devoted her life and her intellect to substance, but then has the bad fortune to fall for Tom, a man who embodies everything that she hates. For his part, Tom ambles on, doing what he's told, and in the rare moments where he exercises independent judgment, he does what he believes is expected of him, cutting small corners to get ahead. Bewildered Tom, he's like a stupid pet trick: He says and does things to play the part of newsman, but there isn't any more thought behind it than a dog barking, "I love you." His ethical lapses are startling in their lack of cynicism. Aaron yearns to climb the ladder, but he doesn't have the looks or charisma. From the start, he seems to know that he's doomed. When he stumbles into reasons for hope, he fumbles them, and the despair gets worse.

Not many movies understand the Type-A, and this one doesn't hit a false note. There's an alchemy to these performances, and the way these characters get along. The three leads work as well together as any ensemble cast -- in the realm of Godfather quality and Casablanca quality. William Hurt's oafishness never becomes unlikeable or pandering. Holly Hunter could have played the standard hard-assed single professional, but instead there's something more subtle -- her vulnerabilities never seem weak, and her tantrums are human. When she eventually decides not to tell her cab driver which route to take, it isn't because she's grown up and let go: it's because she's defeated. Albert Brooks's bundle of neuroses and tics don't have the quirky affectations of (for example) the characters that Woody Allen or Noah Baumbach do so well. He's not self-aware enough; when you think you're the smartest person in the room, it usually doesn't occur to you that you're being an ass, you merely want to share your special brand of genius.

Broadcast News becomes one of the great movies, a likable love triangle like The Philadelphia Story, made even better than that for its undertow. The Philadelphia Story, too, knows how smart people fight with each other, how pride and the fear of failure creeps into their personal lives and body language. But that movie is limited by its setting (a long weekend centered on a society wedding) and its gentler spirit.

In Broadcast News, no matter how impressive their job titles and resumes, they're in a world they don't understand anymore. This agonizes the control freaks like Jane and Aaron, but allows a loose leaf like Tom to be content no matter what direction the wind blows. There are sweat glands, hormones, emotions, job cuts coming from corporate, and isn't life a bitch when distractions like these lay waste to your well thought plans?

1 comment:

The Artist Formally Known as Midwesterner in NYC said...

It is no Legal Eagles but yes, this is a fine film.