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HOWARD ROSENBERG

'Broadcast News' Closes in on Evening News

December 18, 1987|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Did Gary Hart and James L. Brooks get together and plan this?

"Broadcast News" could not have been better timed, its Wednesday release closely following Hart's shocking re-entry as a presidential candidate seven months after withdrawing in face of a potential sex scandal.

Much of this week's coverage of Hart's attempted revival is a fitting companion to Brooks' observant and hilarious theatrical movie that parodies network news as profoundly hollow and trivial.

Brooks ridicules his subject for often stressing messenger over message, looks over smarts, and style over content. Some of that could apply to the shallowness of the Hart coverage, with nearly all of TV boring in on Hart's chances of winning--the old horse race--while ignoring the "new ideas" whose significance he said compelled him to resume campaigning.

As Bruce Herschensohn asked on KABC-TV Channel 7: " What new ideas?"

Yes, what are Hart's "new ideas?" Are they newer than the ideas of the other Democratic candidates or does Hart have nothing new to offer beyond the spectacle of the risen dead? For the most part, you wouldn't know from watching TV. More about that shortly.

William Hurt, Holly Hunter and Albert Brooks form the romantic triangle in "Broadcast News" as Tom Grunick, Jane Craig and Aaron Altman, the likable characters who work in the Washington bureau of a major network.

Grunick is inept, an endearing slug of a reporter soaring to the top on looks and form. Craig is a neurotic, driven, brilliant, idealistic producer being slowly seduced by the very corrupting process she abhors. Altman is the movie's consistent moral conscience, rejecting sham and superficiality, a seasoned and first-rate reporter being surpassed by the ambitious, more-charismatic Grunick.

Handsome and anchorly, Grunick has the formula for TV success. You know he is on his way when he acquires the network correspondent's ultimate symbol of credibility: suspenders.

The movie's most telling sequence has the inexperienced Grunick being picked over Altman to anchor a live special on an important breaking story, with Craig electronically putting words into his mouth by feeding him facts and interview questions through an earpiece. Grunick looks and sounds wonderful. It's frightening.

"What's the next step?" Altman wonders: "Lip syncing?" What's next in this business, too often, is whatever works.

Writer-director-producer Brooks, whose first film was Academy Award-winning "Terms of Endearment," has a glowing TV pedigree. He is executive producer of "The Tracey Ullman Show" on Fox, and his previous credits include "Taxi," "Lou Grant" and "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." He once even worked for CBS News.

His "Broadcast News" lights up all burners as romantic fun and laughs (undoubtedly his first priority), but it is not necessarily a definitive piece on TV news.

Brooks was prophetic in having the network in "Broadcast News" rocked by economic upheaval and mass firings a la recent actual events. Yet Paddy Chayefsky's broader "Network" was more visionary and closer to the heart of TV as society's ultimate turnstile and manipulator of events and emotions.

"Broadcast News" broadsides some fat targets. One is TV's celebration of the reporter. "Yes," remarks Altman, sarcastically, "let's never forget we're the real story. . . ." And what about the play-acting of ersatz journalists? "I don't like the feeling that I'm pretending to be a reporter," Grunick says. Unfortunately, many love the feeling.

But these are easy, familiar marks, TV news getting flattened after leading with its customary glass jaw.

As for the characters, Jane Craig is the truest of the three, a piercingly accurate metaphor for the many extremely bright, intense and principled people who enter TV news with high aspirations and become homogenized, often without realizing it.

"Broadcast News" seems to suggest that TV news is a constant tug of war between hordes of Grunicks and a few stubbornly uncompromising Altmans, with a vacuum in the center. Yet Grunick and Altman are almost too obvious and predictable as the opposite poles in this story.

Nor is Grunick the prototype for network anchors. There's room to debate the relative merits of Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings as journalists, but they are . . . journalists , each having paid his dues in some fashion, unlike Grunick, who is merely a news reader and marionette.

Speaking of the obvious and predictable, meanwhile, there is that Hart coverage. Where was the beef?

Were Hart's "new ideas" merely leftovers from his 1984 campaign? If so, a refresher course would have helped.

On CNN Wednesday night, reporter Tom Mintier did compare several of Hart's "new ideas" with proposals of the other candidates, concluding that "the other Democrats sound a lot like Hart, or he sounds a lot like the others." But that was all too brief.

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