Although almost no one saw it, James L. Brooks released a film in December. Its name was 'How Do You Know,' and it disappeared after just a week or two without a trace, save for the news that came out about its spiraling production costs in relation to its (currently) $30 million gross in almost as many days. Brooks, meanwhile, was largely dismissed critically, and a lot of the coverage of the film focused on how out-of-date or faded his talents have become in the last decade. (Never mind the fact that audiences prefer much more simplistic, fantasy-filled depictions of romance now than they did in his supposed "heyday.")
As such, there couldn't be a better time for Criterion Collection to release their special-edition Blu-ray of one of his biggest successes, 'Broadcast News,' almost concurrently with 'How Do You Know.' Criterion's Blu-ray not only looks terrific, restoring and enhancing its no-frills cinematography (by future 'Goodfellas' director of photography Michael Ballhaus), but including a spectacular wealth of extra material, including an alternate ending, a series of deleted scenes, and an interview with Susan Zirinsky, an associate producer who served as a model for Holly Hunter's character. But of course the question remains, is it as good now as it was then? Or was it ever good? Inspired by both my pre-existing love for that film, and my continuing appreciation for 'How Do You Know,' 'Broadcast News' is the subject of this week's "Shelf Life."
The Facts: Released on December 16, 1987, 'Broadcast News' was a significant commercial hit for writer-director James L. Brooks, earning more than $67 million against its $20 million budget. Simultaneously, the film was a huge critical success as well, receiving seven Academy Award nominations, including for Best Original Screenplay, Best Picture, Best Actress (for Holly Hunter), Best Actor (for William Hurt), Best Supporting Actor (for Albert Brooks), Best Cinematography, and Best Editing. It was also nominated for four Golden Globes, Holly Hunter took home Best Actress from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the National Board of Review, and the New York Film Critics Circle gave it five awards, including Best Film, Director and Screenplay. Meanwhile, the film currently enjoys a 98 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
What Still Works: Just about freaking everything. As an incisive portrait of the media making a transition from hard-facts and real information to glib, manipulative and frivolous depictions of those same situations, 'Broadcast News' is more prescient than ever, down to the plot development where a sizable number of the staff in the newsroom get downsized or canned. Miraculously, the movie isn't purely cynical about the descent of nightly news into abject sensationalism, but it chronicles what (particularly in retrospect) was a pivotal time in the history of, well, broadcast news, and filters that technological and social change not just through a well-told story, but the characters themselves.
The film opens with short vignettes of each of the three main characters as children/ adolescents, and it sets the stage beautifully for what we see in Hunter, Hurt and Brooks throughout the rest of the film: Hunter's Jane is jumpy, meticulous and relentless, Hurt's Tom is determined to be taken seriously but is also aware he doesn't have the intellect to pull it off, and Brooks' Aaron is defiantly intelligent as a way of masking his resentment, and most of all, envy. As grown-ups, we see how each of these three characters' central characteristics comes to be fully realized, if not necessarily come to terms with, and the three stars do a brilliant job giving those qualities dimensionality without spending an ounce of effort to make their behavior sympathetic. It creates in the viewer an uneasy but infinitely more resonant identification with all of the characters' feelings at different times, and makes the even more astounding accomplishment of doing so without insisting that he or she identify with the character him- or herself.
What's most powerful about the movie is the way it flirts with giving the audience conventional connections, romantic payoffs, or dramatic catharses, and then backs off just enough to sustain the audience's attention. In one bravura sequence, Jane has to feed lines from Aaron to Tom as he tackles his first anchor broadcast, and there's a simultaneous joy and melancholy to its completion – a sort of recognition by the film that the experience reinforced so many aspects of what Jane and Aaron fear the most, even though it clearly also brought out many of their best qualities. Similarly, Tom and Jane's furtive courtship is awkward and uneven and even hostile sometimes, and yet we develop a sense of urgency and expectancy that Jane will eventually end up with one of these two men, even if she's not really right for either of them, much less anyone else.
Watching the film also highlighted a powerful, unique quality that so many Brooks movies have – a chronology that plays out via long, elaborate sequences that seem only to get started when most other movies are winding down. After Tom and Jane finally get their personalities out of the way and their libidos in sync, she takes off to check on Aaron, the reliable alternative to Tom's slick, appealing anchorman, and rather than simply ending that sequence, it plays out over several different scenes of interaction, first between Aaron and Jane, then Jane and Tom, then Aaron and Tom, and then Aaron and Jane again, showcasing the messy reality of relationships (romantic notwithstanding) and how they rarely play out in ways that are simple or satisfying. This goes for the film's actual ending as well, which provides a conclusiveness to the characters' stories but doesn't attempt to solve the mathematical possibilities of their love triangle.
What Doesn't Work: That ending is in many ways a master stroke, denying the audience the satisfaction of seeing Jane end up with either of the men who are wooing her in the film. But the way that the film rescues this from being a true shortcoming is by giving such complexity and dimensionality to the characters that we can clearly see by the end of the film that all three of these people have problems too big and too damaging to allow them to end up together, not the least of which because by the end of the film there's so much history between each (and all) of them that we can't simply forget the friction that betrays a more honest depiction of relationships than a conventional ending would provide.
Other than that, the only other (albeit entirely unimportant) shortcoming of the film is the fashion and appearance of the characters. Hunter's wardrobe in particular is simply terrible by today's standards, and one supposes that might be distracting to some viewers, although if it is it's a likely sign they aren't paying close enough attention to what the film is really showing them.
What's The Verdict: 'Broadcast News' is really a work of genius – a sociological study of a time and place, a chronicle of three people fumbling their way through personal and professional lives that intersect, and a deconstruction of romantic comedy clichés that provides the audience with all of the humanity and relatability but denies them the easy payoff of a wish-fulfillment finale. In fact, it makes me appreciate 'How Do You Know' all the more, because although Brooks' new film is a little shaggier and uncertain of itself than this film, it bears so many of the same (and equally effective) hallmarks that distinguish all of his work.
The problem, it seems, is that, as suggested above, audiences simply aren't interested any longer in grown-up depictions of relationships, at least in a greater commercial sense. But with 'How Do You Know' and especially 'Broadcast News' overshadowing so much of their imminently more successful but simplistic competition, we can take solace in the fact that whether or not it ultimately makes money or not, these movies still exist, not just to provide us with answers but to show how everybody is asking the same questions.