I can't believe I just risked my life for a network that tests my face with focus groups.
--Aaron Altman, ace reporter
In the long-ago 1960s, a young, eager James Brooks worked for CBS as newswriter. He got a little taste of the power, glory and romance that surrounded Big Network news.
In the mid-1980s, a grown-up Brooks returned to that tantalizing milieu as the prospective writer and director of a major Hollywood movie--only to find that things had changed.
"(The news business) had changed in every attitude, in every aspect. I can't tell you anything that's the same," says Brooks, now a burly and bearded 47-year-old with a long string of film and TV credits, including "Terms of Endearment," "The Tracey Ullman Show" and "The Mary Tyler Moore Show."
Nowadays, anchormen are prettier, and brilliant-but-homely field correspondents aren't necessarily hot commodities.
The latest Nielsen ratings are an oppressive presence on every newsroom bulletin board. Reporters are taught to worry about profits no less than ethics. And creeping careerism has replaced the megalomania of Paddy Chayefsky's "Network," as much as the get-the-story ethos of Ben Hecht's "The Front Page."
"It used to be that if you told a guy, 'You're going to Lebanon,' he said, 'Great!' He packed his bag and went," says Brooks.
"Now, he may very well say to you, 'No, I'm not . . . . I have a wife and a couple of little kids, and they're more important to me.' "
So it goes in the battered world of modern TV journalism--at least according to "Broadcast News," a surprisingly candid romantic comedy about three less-than-heroic, if wholly human, network news professionals.
According to Brooks, "Broadcast News" is about "fundamental changes" in the way most people work and love in the 1980s. In fact, the writer-director says he had planned to call the film "Fundamental Changes," until he became convinced that the title didn't work.
Be that as it may, audiences aren't likely to see "Broadcast News," scheduled for a Christmas release by 20th Century Fox, without fretting about the turmoil it portrays in a Washington news bureau during the era of brutal staff cuts and deteriorating news values.
Among other things, the movie deals with a sharp and personal tussle over the proper relationship between flash and substance on the tube.
In one corner is anchorman Tom Grunick. Played by William Hurt, he is dumb but attractive, and destined to prosper in the age of infotainment.
("What can you do with yourself if all you can do is look good?" says preteen Grunick in the opening scenario, never imagining what delights the future holds for those who are merely charming.)
Grunick's opposite is news correspondent Aaron Altman. Played by Albert Brooks, Altman, neither dumb nor pretty, believes Grunick is the devil incarnate, come to "bit by bit lower our standards"--and make off with "all the great women" in the process.
The two are in love, sort of, with Jane Craig, a network news producer played by Holly Hunter. She is obsessive, ambitious, always right and pretty much without a personal life.
"I am beginning to repel people I am trying to seduce," says the desperate Jane, a kind of Everywoman for the single set.
Like "Terms of Endearment," which chronicled a tortuous mother-daughter relationship, Brooks' new movie is considered somewhat risky by Hollywood standards because it turns on character development rather than vivid action or startling plot twists. "If only it had a car chase," says one Fox executive, in joking reference to the difficulty of marketing adult films even in the wake of "Fatal Attraction," Paramount's surprisingly huge hit with older audiences this fall.
In fact, Fox is in the unusual position of having two adult-leaning "headline" movies on its schedule this Christmas.
The studio is also releasing "Wall Street," Oliver Stone's drama about corruption in the world of high finance. Fox executives say they don't expect serious difficulty in marketing the two films side by side, since Stone's movie is considerably darker and less romantic than Brooks', and will presumably play to a more suspense-oriented audience.
Coincidentally, Brooks says his film was almost born as a romantic version of "Wall Street."
Once having decided to make a movie about people "who were doing well," he initially spent time hanging out with reporters and editors at the Wall Street Journal. He then moved on to in-depth interviews with a female investment banker, but ultimately decided to develop a script about the networks and their current turmoil instead.
If "Broadcast News" is somewhat less mimetic than "Wall Street"--which appears closely keyed to last year's insider trading scandals--it nonetheless wrestles honestly enough with its troubled characters and their world to have caused comedy veteran Brooks some uneasy moments.