Sunday, August 12, 2012

Don't Make a Scene: Broadcast News

The Set-Up:  When he's "on," you can't beat James L. Brooks.  Well conceptualized, researched and cast, Brooks in tip form makes extraordinary, even definitive, films that make good story-telling look easy.  His only short-falls seem to be in a somewhat unimaginative (let's call it "functional") director's "eye," and the perfectionist's need to "futz" with the material, risking ruining it, like a bad pull in Jenga.

But there are moments—and they are moments—when he nails it right to the wall, where the set-up is simple, even innocuous, and the pay-off is so perfect it makes your head hurt.

This one—from Broadcast News—is one of them.  Jane (Holly Hunter) is a mess, a jangling bundle of nerves and nerviness.  A little spit-fire, who achieves a sense of calm in a meditative state that collapses in an instantaneous and cathartic crying jag.  An explosive burst of (what?  Conscience?  Empathy?  Weltschmerz?  Cramps?) that nicely compartmentalizes emotion and stress that is then filed away—spiked—then forgotten. -30-

Throughout the film she is stuck in a quandary that tears her apart, personally and professionally.  Two guys—Aaron (Albert Brooks), the schlumpy reporter whose skills she admires and whose neuroses she tolerates, and Tom (William Hurt), the ambitious, if intellectually dull, golden boy anchor-type.  This moment of confrontation with the head of the news division has her caught in the middle: Aaron, who's the better man for the job, has been shunted aside for Tom during a special report to interrupt programming.  She is incensed at the decision and pleads (although "pleads" is not the word) her case in the direct and efficient way she is used to.  The result reveals a crack in her professional armor.  And couldn't be more perfect.
The Story: At a casual Sunday get-together for the Washington Bureau, the report has just come in that a Libyan plane has just attacked a military installation and been shot down by an American war plane.  The News president Paul Moore (real life NBC reporter Peter Hackes) has just ordered a special news bulletin, hastily assembled with Jane Craig (Holly Hunter) executive producing and (as News anchor Bill Rorich—Jack Nicholson—is on his boat for the weekend) Tom Grunick (William Hurt) anchoring, over Jane's best friend and frequent collaborator Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks).  Determined that this is the wrong move, she seeks out the executive to plead her case.

Action! (in 3....2....*)


As she moves past Tom who is talking on the phone, eventually catching up with Paul. In the b.g. Tom has just HEARD the "BEEP" of an ANSWERING MACHINE.  

TOM Hello, Buddy. It's 1:35 -- and this is Tom. 

TOM You can reach me at the office. It's important. I can use a little help.

Jane, because of the proximity to Tom is speaking in whispered intensity.

JANE: Paul, forgive me.  Pardon me for interrupting...

JANE:  But...Paul...

JANE: ...I need to talk to you outside for just a minute.

Paul nods.

JANE: Great!

JANE Tom isn't ready for the job you're about to hand him. Not near ready. Not by the longest shot. 

JANE Aaron's spent six weeks in Tripoli... 

JANE ...he's interviewed Gaddafi -- he reported on the Eight-one story. I think he's essential to do the job we're capable of and I think it's my responsibility to tell you that.

PAUL Okay, that's your opinion. I don't agree. 

JANE It's not opinion. 

PAUL You're just absolutely right and I'm absolutely wrong?

She nods. 

PAUL It must be nice to always believe you know better. To think you're always the smartest person in the room. 

JANE (from her depths) No, it's awful. Oh my, it's awful. 

JANE PAUL (turning to leave) You'd better get moving. 

Broadcast News 

Words by James L. Brooks 

Pictures by Michael Ballhaus and James L. Brooks 

Broadcast News is available on DVD from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.

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