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MOVIE REVIEWS : Holiday Fare From Brooks and Jewison : 'Broadcast News' Covers Backstage TV

December 16, 1987|SHEILA BENSON | Times Film Critic

"Broadcast News" (Avco Cinema, Cineplex Beverly Center) is so diabolically clever that you rather expect it to be heartless, in the way that so much surface cleverness can be. No such thing.

This first film by writer-director-producer James L. Brooks since "Terms of Endearment" goes right to the core of a modern romantic triangle, and while it's there, gives us a look at what ails the news broadcasting business. But heartless is the wrong word for this movie: It's insightful and understanding and marvelous fun, while giving up none of its thoughtfulness.

Veteran TV news writer Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks) and fledgling reporter Tom Grunick (William Hurt) are two-thirds of our triangle; the last third is rising young producer Jane Craig (Holly Hunter, sturdily sensational). The action takes place primarily in the Washington bureau of a network news division, where all three now work.

The story unfolds as a series of "days in the life of" a network news bureau, and a cautionary tale it is. Brooks is understandably distressed at the state of the news we're getting, in bright, flashy, easily digested "bites," a USA Today, "Entertainment Tonight" version of the news.

He lets Jane Craig, who has to produce the stuff, explain her anger at a broadcasting seminar, with clips of a story on the Japanese domino championships carried on all networks in place of hard news about the nuclear disarmament talks. Her audience, however, eats it up. As she tries to point out that she has nothing against fun--it just isn't news --she's met with apathy and palpable resentment.

The bureau itself, in common with most news magazines and newspapers (or director Brooks' "Mary Tyler Moore Show," which he co-created) is peopled with decent, committed people who are not happy with the direction their profession is going but are powerless to do much about it.

The movie has a raft of well-defined supporting players: Robert Prosky as the bureau chief, Lois Chiles as one of the pioneering correspondent/beauties and Joan Cusack as an assistant director, perennially hysterical in the face of Jane Craig's efficient calm. If the president of the news division looks familiar, he should: it's Peter Hackes, the 30-year veteran Washington correspondent for NBC News.

And there is a magnificent cameo by an unbilled actor playing the network anchorman. The surprise is too good to ruin; all that can be said is, anchormen, beware! Someone's got your number.

Best buddies Aaron and Jane could probably make Mensa membership without breaking stride; Tom would be lucky if the Mickey Mouse Club took him in. It's not for lack of trying. Tom has probably worked harder than any of them; it simply takes a very long time for information to mean anything to him. Unfortunately, he's gorgeous, which in television has gotten him further than all of Aaron's intelligence and experience.

However--saving grace--Tom is only too aware of his failings. It's that quality that makes us not hate him as those good looks, camouflaging terminal denseness, carry him up and up.

Tom's self-awareness isn't quite enough for Jane. She's in the disquieting position of being attracted by him, and finding him the personification of something she finds truly dangerous in the news business, the slick news salesman.

Aaron, who's found himself only too often as the funny-one-who- doesn't-get-the-girl, comes closest to blowing it in our affection. It's simply too easy for him to dig, to jab, to use his quickness to show other people up. It takes all of Albert Brooks' monumental charm, and Aaron's palpable vulnerability when it comes to Jane, to keep him in our good graces. Yet, he does.

Jane, radiantly fair-minded, is possibly the most interesting of the three. It's not that Brooks hasn't tried to be scrupulously careful in balancing his characters, but even in this heady company, there's no missing the tensile strength, the tough-nut intelligence or slightly cracked-voice charm of Holly Hunter. Last seen as the shrieking violet in "Raising Arizona" (Nicolas Cage's wife desperate to have children), she gets a whole new lease on life here and is no less than magnificent.

The trio work wonderfully together. Although Hunter's role is the more gripping, Hurt may have the most difficult job--being earnest, slightly dim, a touch unprincipled but likable. It's that absence of a moral center that makes him so damned dangerous, and film maker Brooks worries that fewer and fewer people will object to it--or even notice it. As a romantic unsatisfied with his role as Jane's best buddy, Albert Brooks is unparalleled.

Brooks' talent for observation and for truthful, careful writing borders on the eerie. He's captured these young people and their pressure-cooker jobs exactly--their banter, their rationalizations, the balance of their lives between work and whatever comes a close second. (That might even be romance, if there were any time for it.)

He has seen that a playful sort of ego-speak guards their vulnerability, and he understands that there is a distinct air of pragmatism to his whiz kids. But he likes them. And there's no way in the world that we won't either.

'BROADCAST NEWS' A 20th Century Fox Film Corp. release, produced in association with Amercent Films and American Entertainment Partners L.P.. Writer, producer, director James L. Brooks. Executive producer Polly Platt. Camera Michael Ballhaus. Production design Charles Rosen. Editor Richard Marks. Music Bill Conti. Co-producer Penney Finkelman Cox. Associate producers Kristi Zea, Susan Sirinsky. Costumes Molly Maginnis. Set decorator Jane Bogart. Sound Thomas Causey. With William Hurt, Albert Brooks, Holly Hunter, Robert Prosky, Lois Chiles, Joan Cusack, Peter Hackes, Christian Clemenson.

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