Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Broadcast News: The Fall of American Media


Decades Project: 6/8 of the 80's

Broadcast News charts a shift in American culture which continues to determine the types of media content consumed by the public today. The old guard of hard news was defeated by the new wave of infotainment and personal interest, which now finds itself manifested in the popularity of everything from lifestyle magazines to YouTube. Media shifted slowly from politics to pleasure.

Jane Craig (Holly Hunter) speaks to a disinterested audience about trends in entertainment, and as the crowd wanes she tries to grab their attention by screening a tape of the Japanese Domino Championships (something you'd find today on the front page of Reddit or YouTube), which she explains was "a story carried by all networks on the same night—the same night—that not one network noted a major policy change in Salt Two nuclear disarmament talks." The remaining guests watch the tape with glee, applauding what Jane sees as their own loss of principles. "We're all secretly terrified by what's happening, aren't we?" she asks, but nobody seems to care.

But while Jane sees this as a negative trend—a degradation of news journalism—the film itself never portrays the issue in such black and white terminology. It never questions the facts of what Jane says, but the vacant eyes of the crowd belie a different truth. Hard news is stagnating. Jane's speech is the same speech we've heard countless times before. Infotainment is succeeding not because people are lazy and don't want to know about what's going on in the world, but because politics has forgotten how to sell itself.

The film's cultural awareness extends beyond the script to the characters themselves. Jane and her close friend Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks) are both principled members of the old guard, while Tom Grunick (William Hurt) is an embodiment of everything they hate: dumb, pretty, and more interested in an audience's emotional response than stimulating their intellect. But while Tom's not the brightest news anchor, he knows more than Jane or Aaron about how to sell himself, how to get viewers interested in what he has to say. He's the underdog for the majority of the film, fighting to be accepted; but when Aaron gets an opportunity to anchor for the weekend news, he goes to Tom for help. The battlefield is evenly drawn, with each side showing its strengths and weaknesses.

Broadcast News is also undeniably a genre film, but it plays with the conventions of the romantic comedy in creative ways. The dumb blonde is a man rather than a woman. But much more crucially, the woman whose life is all work and no play doesn't have all her problems solved by meeting the right man. Jane is a refreshing reversal of her overworked, undersexed stereotype (which would then be un-reversed for disasters like 27 Dresses), and the radiant Holly Hunter plays her with a complex sympathy that makes her one of cinema's most interesting female protagonists. The controversial ending is perfect: it might not be satisfying, but like the film's discussion of the shifting trends of news media, at least it's real.

"He will be attractive! He'll be nice and helpful. He'll get a job where he influences a great God-fearing nation. He'll never do an evil thing! He'll never deliberately hurt a living thing. He will just bit by little bit lower our standards where they are important. Just a tiny little bit. Just coax along flash over substance. Just a tiny little bit. And he'll talk about all of us really being salesmen. And he'll get all the great women."

Related Lists
Decades Project | Best Picture Losers | Girl Power

I'm not even embarrassed to admit that I have Holly Hunter and Albert Brooks in my notes as Elastigirl and Marlin.

Also, cinematographer Michael Ballhaus pulls a Sixth Sense with the color red (highlighting important objects / moments).

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