Wednesday, February 9, 2011

BROADCAST NEWS: Blu-ray (Fox 1987) Criterion

An incisive satire, astutely predicting the slow demise of 'real journalism', James L. Brooks Broadcast News (1987) remains a deft time capsule as well as a penetrating romantic comedy about insatiable oddballs whose only common thread is their love of network news. However, 'love' is a word of various meanings that Brooks' screenplay pays homage and takes umbrage to.

On the one hand is Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks), an intellectual urban Jew. Aaron's love is true to form. He understands and appreciates the high art associated with journalistic integrity, yet has no personality to carry it off in front of the camera. On the other end is Tom Grunick (William Hurt), a morally vacant, socially absent pundit whose only authority derives from the way he looks in front of a camera. Neither is a complete man. Both are looking to elevate their current status through a romantic alliance with the emotionally high strung zeitgeist that is producer, Jane Craig (a role originally offered to Debra Winger but eventually played to perfection by Holly Hunter).

Jane is a brilliant mind. She shares in Aaron's public speaking insecurities, especially when having to address a delegation of her peers at a journalist's convention. The event is a disaster, but it introduces Jane to Tom, who immediately recognizes her sincerity and how he might best be able to exploit it to further his own career. Jane, however, is too smart to fall for just a pretty face...or is she? "I don't have time to teach remedial journalism," she bristly tells Tom. And although Tom is emotionally wounded by Jane's repeated deflation of what he all too easily recognizes as his own limited intellectual abilities, a quiet and sexually frustrated chemistry begins to grow between them.

Aaron and Jane go off to Nicaragua to shoot an exposé on the civil war, leaving Tom in the clutches of fellow journalist, Jennifer Mack (Lois Chiles) who is more Tom's equal in both temperament and aspirations. Returning to the relative safety of the studio, Jane publicly encourages Jennifer to pursue Tom romantically, then almost immediately regrets her decision. Hence, when their boss, Ernie Merriman (Robert Prosky) asks Jane to recommend a new anchor for the Alaskan bureau, Jane immediately picks Jennifer for the assignment, effectively ending the brief affair she and Tom have started.

To prove his journalistic chops, Tom pitches an idea about 'date rape' as a segment for the nightly news. The assignment is accepted by Ernie and Tom interviews a victimized woman (Marita Geraghty) who tells her story on air. However, midway through the broadcast the camera cuts to a close up of a tearful Tom. This infuriates and fuels Aaron's contempt for what he deems as 'pretty boy' journalism.

In the meantime, Aaron is told by Ernie that a new restructuring at the network news division will likely result in many layoffs including his own and this, coupled with Aaron's animosity toward Washington correspondent, Bill Rorich (Jack Nicholson) casts the usually level-headed Aaron into a wallow of self pity and despair. After nearly the entire division, except for Aaron, are invited to a Washington news gala, Aaron finagles a brief shining moment to helm the nightly news - determined to save his job by providing what he believes will be a superior commentary that will set him apart from Tom's usual drivel.

Much to Aaron's chagrin, he has a very bad attack of nervous sweats on air. Nevertheless, his wording is solid and true to form and Aaron delivers a meaningful broadcast. Regrettably, it all comes much too late - as it turns out - for everyone at the station. The network has decided to pull the plug and close the division.

Tom gets wind of a job in Los Angeles and asks Jane to go with him as his producer. Assuming that Tom's invitation means he has come to respect her for her craft while also love her as a woman, Jane begins to chart their life of sublime happiness together that is not to be. Aaron, having realized his true affections for Jane, makes a last ditch attempt to woo her for his own by suggesting that Tom is a fake and she more the fool if she believes any lasting commitment will come of their snap decision to move away together.

To prove Aaron wrong, Jane decides to review Tom's interview with his rape victim, since that was the very first time Jane began to believe that maybe Tom had grown as a journalist and as someone she could learn to love. Much to Jane's regret, she uncovers the truth about the interview. Not only did Tom stage his own tears for the occasion, but the woman he interviewed was actually an actress and not a rape victim. This discovery destroys whatever fleeting faith Jane had in Tom. At the airport, Jane reveals to Tom her discovery and he, true to his own folly as a failed anchor, leaves her for his new career in L.A.

The film's narrative jumps forward by seven years where Tom, now a cultural mandarin of the nightly news, is publicly addressing a conference of his esteemed peers. He receives a thunderous ovation for his skills as an orator, though we are ever so slightly sceptical that Tom has yet to learn his lesson as a purveyor of journalistic integrity. As the auditorium clears, Tom is surprised to see Jane standing in the background with Aaron whom she has married.

Tom introduced Aaron and Jane to his wife, a buxom, blonde fashion plate as intellectually vapid and shallow as we now realize Tom has remained. The film ends with these three old friends sharing a brief moment of truth outside the auditorium, their friendship having weathered many personal conflicts that leave the future of journalistic integrity an open question rife for debate.

Viewed today, Broadcast News is very much a prolific farewell to that stoic nightly network news culture it once seemed to belong to. That seismic shift from solid, fact based reporting to our current prosaic template of celebrity gossip and pop-u-tainment fuelled sound bytes has come to complete fruition since the film's general release in 1987.

As Brooks prophetically predicted, the paradigms of honest work and romantic love that seem to be at the cusp of implosion by the last reel of his film have since been obscured and inverted in our own reality, belonging nowhere in our current society where mindlessness is increasingly in vogue and celebrated beyond all reason. If Broadcast News is a time capsule, it remains one with an ominous clarity of where the future and our own movie culture have ultimately taken us and the view from this side of that 'neverland' is indeed not a very pretty one.

At long last Criterion Home Video makes Broadcast News available in an anamorphic widescreen transfer on Blu-ray. There's really no point in comparing this disc to the abysmal non-anamorphic DVD from Fox Home Video released in 1998. In all categories, Criterion's release is the one to own. The 1080p image exhibits a startling amount of clarity. The image is very crisp.

Owing to its film stock, the Blu-ray exhibits a rather heavy patina of grain throughout and this is as it should be. Colours are bright and refined. Fine details are not as sharp as one might expect, but this is also the result of shortcomings in the original film stock, not the Blu-ray transfer. Occasionally, the image can appear slightly soft - especially in long establishing shots or as with various scenes that take place beneath the title credits. Nevertheless, Broadcast News is visually a revelation on Blu-ray.

Purists to a fault, Criterion has also remained true to the original 2.0 stereo track and resisted the urge to provide a new DTS 5.1 alternative. Since the film is primarily a dialogue driven story, the lack of an upgraded audio really isn't a disappointment. Extras are where the Criterion offering truly excels. Fox gave us absolutely nothing on their initial DVD release, so arguably anything would be better. But Criterion does better than just anything.

For starters, we get 'A Singular Voice' - a superbly produced, almost hour long documentary of James L. Brook's career and accomplishments with extensive interviews and archival footage. There's also an alternative ending and deleted scenes to enjoy, new interviews with CBS news producer Susan Zirinsky and vintage featurettes on the making of the film. Highly recommended!

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)






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