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Broadcast News (Blu-ray Review)

14 Feb, 2011 By: Mike Clark

$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray
‘R’ for language and some sexual content.
Stars Holly Hunter, William Hurt, Albert Brooks, Jack Nicholson.

Though James L. Brooks’ second feature as a director was and is still among my favorite Hollywood movies of the 1980s, the passage of so many years without taking a fresh look gave me a select memory of its rewards. The sharp dialogue has always resonated (predictably so, given Brooks’ gifts as a writer), and so has the ensemble acting. The latter, of course, includes a once thoroughly ambushing performance by lead Holly Hunter for which no one was prepared, even though she had impressed earlier the same year in the Coen Brothers’ Raising Arizona in an almost laughably different kind of (debut) role.

What I had forgotten was how much its story reverberates today in terms of the climactic mass layoffs at its story-central television network’s Washington, D.C., news bureau — scenes that are more discomforting than ever now that nearly every day brings a story of some newspaper, magazine or TV jettisoning staff. Of course, the movie has always rung true, albeit in broad comic terms, to those who work the media in the nation’s capital. I had the privilege of showing it in 1987 to a lot of D.C.’s TV folk and Washington Post staffers in the American Film Institute’s intimate upstairs screening room, a knowing audience that regarded it as dead on. The laughter and all around recognition was palpable — similar to what it had been like during a screening a couple years earlier to the same hands and in the same location of Joan Micklin Silver’s ticklish Between the Lines. But this is the stronger movie.

In addition to built-in tension between the not very photogenic newshound who seethes at his lack of air time (Albert Brooks) and the handsome news reader who’s being groomed for a lifetime of promotions (William Hurt), News remains its era’s definitive work-vs.-personal life screen treatment. How do you forge a romance — or even relax — when you’re traipsing off to a South American jungle one day and having your Sunday afternoon staff Christmas party interrupted by a Libyan attack, for which half the guests have to run off to the bureau? How can kids’ soccer games or leisurely movie matinees compete? Well, they can’t.

Hunter’s many unforgettable scenes include one where she schedules a couple minutes to cry her eyes out to relieve tension, as if the tears were the equivalent of isometric exercises. Appearing on the DVD/Blu-ray bonus supplements is veteran CBS news producer Susan Zirinsky (an associate producer on the movie and major inspiration for Hunter’s character), who concedes that, yes, she used to cry on schedule just like that, and that, no, she didn’t find her own romance until late in life. There was also such a physical resemblance between the two that actor Brooks began mouthing the “Twilight Zone” theme as Zirinsky and Hunter first met.

Early in his career, filmmaker Brooks (a co-creator of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”) had worked at CBS News himself, which was in a period of turmoil (read: those layoffs again) at the time he was making this picture. It was also an organic period that was, to quote critic Carrie Rickey in her concise Criterion edition essay, “after the fall of the Equal Rights Amendment and before the fall of the Berlin Wall — a time when gender wars and cold wars (rather than infotainment and political scandals) led the news.” Put it all together, and you have a movie that was prescient yet is still a crucial one of its time.

The extras also include a portrait of Brooks-the-filmmaker that only deals with his hits — though, truth to tell, even his misses are closer to near-misses (December’s wobbly, otherwise imperfect but also unduly lambasted How Do You Know is a lot better than most comedies of the 2000s, especially when you think of Reese Witherspoon’s character and Hunter’s here as soul sisters facing crossroads).

Joining Brooks on the commentary is editor Richard Marks, and the deleted scenes here contain one major revelation: a more romantic ending that is at least as good as the honest but perhaps emotionally unsatisfying one that ended up in the release version. It packs a wallop if you’ve just watched the movie, and the odd story behind its conception so pains its maker until this day that he hadn’t looked at the alternative scene again until now.

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