Friday, 30 October 2020

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Why the 1987 movie Broadcast News is as relevant as ever

BBC job cuts have highlighted why James L Brooks’ rom-com remains current more than 30 years after its release

Many films from the 1980s haven’t aged well. With hallmarks such as big hair, synth-pop, and dodgy gender politics reminding you of the years that stand between the present and the release date, 80s Hollywood cinema can often feel out of touch. But, every now and then, current affairs can in fact raise a film as evergreen, perhaps even prophetic. After the BBC’s announcement last month of plans to cut 450 newsroom jobs, this is the case for James L Brooks’ 1987 film, Broadcast News. Hollywood has long had an obsession with journalism, with countless dramas giving their takes on the industry each year — look no further than recently released dramas Bombshell and Mr. Jones, or Wes Anderson’s forthcoming The French Dispatch. Yet, very few can stand up to Brooks’ second feature, which many regard as a rom-com.

There’s a scene in the film when celebrity prime time newsreader Bill Rorish, played by a suited and sleazy Jack Nicholson, enters the office. He bemoans having to tell colleagues that cutbacks mean they are to be made redundant, only for someone to suggest he could chip a chunk off his salary to solve the problem. While it’s hard to envisage Jeremy Vine or Huw Edwards making their way through Broadcasting House schmoozing and sacking, the employees’ anxieties brought on by the cull certainly still speak to the current media landscape. Yet this is just one example of how Broadcast News needled at journalism trends with uncomfortable precision.

This originally stems from the writer/director’s background. Prior to his pivot to filmmaking, James L Brooks worked as a journalist at CBS, and it shows. His Oscar-nominated film revolves around three people in a TV newsroom. Holly Hunter’s Jane is a brilliant producer — petite yet forceful, uptight yet adored. Aaron (Albert Brooks), is an upstanding and talented reporter who is close with Jane, at least until the good-looking former sports anchorman Tom (William Hurt) arrives. On the face of it, it’s a simple love triangle where Jane has to choose between style and substance, a conflict which extends to the film’s approach to journalism. 

Holly Hunter’s character is ceaselessly seen questioning what the late-80s media has begun to report. At a broadcasting conference she points to how major networks ran a clip of a Japanese domino championship instead of a story about nuclear disarmament talks. In our current climate, where many popular news outlets are awash with reality TV-related clickbait, this now subversively strikes a chord. 

Likewise, Jane laments the rising phenomenon of “news as profit” and its dangers on what and how stories are reported. This was nine years before Rupert Murdoch bought Fox News. In other words, Brooks’ film had pinpointed the looming gloom that TV series such as Succession are now satirising and winning awards for, more than three decades later.

Similarly, it’s in the telegenic Tom that Brooks’ subtle probing really pierces. In a time when news anchors were beginning to become celebrities (a phenomenon we now see with the likes of American right-wing personalities such as Tucker Carlson), Hurt’s character embodies the priority of entertainment over truth. His pivotal moment comes when he interviews a victim of rape and edits the broadcast to make it look like he was moved to tears at her testimony. When Jane discovers his clear violation of journalism ethics, she tells him, “you could get fired for things like that,” only for him to reply, “I got promoted for things like that.”

It’s this foreshadowing that now feels particularly on the nose. The inflammatory and often sensationalist way in which partisan press outlets operate in both Brexit Britain and Trump’s America reveal how many (though not all, of course) outlets began to prioritise the potential theatre of current affairs over the news itself. The overused term “fake news” naturally springs to mind. 

But that’s not to say that Broadcast News proclaimed journalism was dying in the 80s. Indeed, for every newsroom Tom, there is a Jane — a notion which will continue to be true at the BBC regardless of the cuts. Instead, Brooks’ film was sharply on the button regarding the state of flux in which journalism continues to find itself. Many of the great journalism movies, such as All the President’s Men or Spotlight, are prestige dramas often based on serious, real-life exposés, but Brooks’ rom-com of sorts deserves a spot at this top table for its enduring timeliness.

Of course, the late-80s specifics do mean that Broadcast News has its wrinkles; there may be no synth-pop, but Joan Cusack ticks the big hair box and the newsroom has corded telephones and no MacBooks. But more than 30 years after its initial release, the palpable prescience of its subtle commentary on its industry’s shifting sands makes it as relevant as ever. 

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